April 2010

Renewing America COMPETES


America Competes
President George W. Bush signs H.R. 2272, The America Competes Act, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2007, in the Oval Office.

In 2007, Congress passed a landmark package of legislation, known as the America COMPETES Act, to strengthen the nation’s competitive position by stimulating scientific research and education.

The provisions redefined the roles of several federal science agencies.

Although many of the COMPETES Act programs are just beginning, the House Science and Technology Committee already has begun the process of reauthorizing the legislation before it expires at the end of 2010. Hoping to improve upon the previous bill, the committee has held numerous hearings since January on various aspects of COMPETES, including its impact on the economy, science education and infrastructure.

Economic Impact

There appears to be broad consensus among members of Congress that COMPETES is contributing positively to America’s economic competitiveness. In testimony before the committee on Jan. 20, business leaders expressed their support for the legislation.

 “The America COMPETES Act absolutely is vital to ensuring future U.S. innovation leadership and prosperity and security for America’s workers,” said John Castellani, president of Business Roundtable.

Business leaders emphasized the importance of provisions that would allow for the doubling of the budgets of key science agencies.

John Engler, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Manufacturers, said that doubling federal funding for the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science would create jobs by building the infrastructure necessary for cutting-edge science and by funding grants that help spur innovation.



Highlights from the Policy Blotter

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Policy Blotter blog posts regular news and commentary about current science policy issues. Below are some recent highlights. You can read them at http://asbmbpolicy.asbmb.org.

• University Infrastructure: Declines and Dollars  
During the House Science and Technology Committee’s hearing Feb. 23, senior officials from major research institutions highlighted declines in research infrastructure at universities.

Help Wanted: Federal Science Policy Leaders  
In recent weeks, several prominent leaders in the science-policy community have announced they will be leaving their positions.

• Former FASEB Staffer to Join NIH Leadership  
Pat White, former director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, has been appointed associate director for legislative policy and analysis at the National Institutes of Health.

Business leaders also emphasized the importance of COMPETES in promoting education in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

By focusing on increasing the number of American students proficient in STEM, “this legislation is moving America in the right direction,” said Thomas J. Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, on Jan. 20.

During a subsequent hearing on Feb. 4, education experts agreed but recognized the challenges facing STEM education.  Richard Stephens, senior vice president for human resources at Boeing and chairman of the Aerospace Industries Association work force-steering committee, described the attrition of students from undergraduate STEM majors and highlighted the dearth of qualified candidates for science and engineering jobs.

But, there was no clear consensus about the solution to STEM education woes.

Noah Finkelstein, associate professor of physics education research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that traditional models of classroom education are no longer appropriate. Although researchers now know how to improve student learning, new practices are not widespread, and more research is needed to disseminate educational reforms, Finkelstein said.

Robert Mathieu, director of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, advocated for the integration of research and teaching in undergraduate and graduate education. Specifically, he acknowledged the NSF’s faculty early-career development program, known as CAREER, which provides awards for early-stage faculty members who successfully integrate research and teaching.


According to senior officials from major research institutions, America’s competitiveness also is suffering because of declines in research infrastructure at universities.

“Our nation’s research universities are falling behind in their ability to provide the physical infrastructure” that is vital to research, said Leslie Tolbert, vice president for research at University of Arizona.

During the committee’s hearing on university infrastructure Feb. 23, U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., said universities are deferring $3.5 billion in needed renovations. Tolbert and other officials concurred, listing hundreds of millions in needed facility updates at each of their institutions and detailing their effects on research.

The NSF provides limited support for university infrastructure through programs like the Major Research Instrumentation program, but concern for an expanded federal role in providing for research infrastructure was expressed on both sides of the aisle.

Noting that the NSF’s expertise was in supporting peer-reviewed, basic research, U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., said that it was not clear that agencies like the NSF had the knowledge to judge proposals for specialized facilities.

Going Forward

Reauthorizing America COMPETES is the committee’s top legislative priority, and Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said he aims to pass the legislation through the House by Memorial Day. Using input from the witnesses at these and other hearings, “the new legislation is likely to include new programs and policy direction at NSF, NIST and other agencies relating to transformative research innovation, commercialization and manufacturing,” the committee said in a statement.

Kyle M. Brown (kmbrown@asbmb.org) is an ASBMB science policy fellow.

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