ASBMB urges swift passage of U.S. competition legislation

The U.S. House passed the America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing, Pre-Eminence in Technology, and Economic Strength Act of 2022 (COMPETES) on Feb. 4, 2022.  A conference committee will negotiate the provisions within that differ from those in the U.S. Senate’s version of the bill, the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (USICA), which passed in June of 2021. 

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology endorses provisions in both COMPETES (H.R. 4521) and USICA (S. 1260) that, if made law, would (1) increase funding for federal research agencies, (2) protect investigator-initiated basic research during the development of translational research initiatives, and (3) enhance the recruitment and retention of international scholars and diverse research talent into the U.S. STEM workforce.

As research-and-development performance shifts away from the United States, we urge members of the conference committee to work swiftly to pass this important legislation that would bolster the U.S. research enterprise and maintain the U.S.’s leadership role in scientific research.

Bolstering federal research agencies 

The ASBMB applauds Congress’ bipartisan commitment to enhancing America’s scientific capabilities in Division B of both COMPETES and USICA, which allocates budget increases to federal research agencies, as well as establishes measures for supporting and diversifying the STEM workforce through new graduate and postgraduate training initiatives. The ASBMB supports strong and sustained investments in the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which are critical to discovering scientific and technological breakthroughs and advancing America’s leadership in key technologies. The ASBMB has previously endorsed the Bioeconomy Research and Development Act of 2021 for its collaborative approach to generating innovation across multiple scientific sectors.

We urge conference committee members to ensure passage of the provisions in Division B of the bills to ensure America remains competitive in science and technology. In particular, the ASBMB would like to highlight the following legislative measures that are crucial for supporting the fundamental research that resides at the core of innovation.

Repair and modernize national research laboratories

A critical component to bolstering U.S. research and innovation is maintaining state-of-the-art national research laboratories, which are the backbone of the Nation’s scientific research enterprise. The ASBMB asks that the finalized bill include the provisions from the Restore and Modernize Our National Labs Act that would fund repairs and modern upgrades for laboratories, administrative buildings, and other critical infrastructure. These investments will keep the labs’ more than 40,000 employees safe and secure, and reinforce the foundation of the scientific enterprise.

A new directorate for the NSF

The House and Senate bills have shared goals of supporting fundamental scientific research, accelerating the translation and commercialization of science and technologies, and increasing the inclusivity of the scientific workforce pipeline. However, they differ in their stated goals for a new directorate for the NSF.

In agreement with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the ASBMB requests that basic fundamental research remain a top priority within NSF’s new directorate and have a separate budget from translational research. Fundamental research provides the foundation for scientific breakthroughs, and clear and sustained prioritization of fundamental scientific research will continue to exponentially advance new technologies, alternative energy resources, and the treatment of life-threatening diseases.

Supporting international talent and security

Foreign-born scientists working in the U.S. play a critical role in increasing economic growth, and U.S. innovation and competitiveness. The ASBMB supports reforms to immigration policies that remove barriers for international talent to contribute to U.S. scientific research.  Sec. 80303 of the COMPETES Act would exempt foreign-born STEM Ph.D. recipients from numerical caps on U.S. green cards. The ASBMB encourages Congress to retain Sec. 80303 in the finalized legislation to increase the opportunity for talented foreign-born scientists to stay in the U.S.

Foreign-born scholars make up 50% to 75% percent of STEM graduate students and 50% of the doctoral-level science workforce nationwide. Yet the current visa process makes it difficult for them to remain in the U.S. to work and contribute to the U.S. economy after their research training is complete. This squanders the substantial investment made in these scientists by the U.S. research enterprise. Currently, immigrants from high-volume countries who hold advanced degrees face numerical caps, which have caused up to a decades-long waiting period for permanent residency (i.e., green cards). Passage of Sec. 80303 will remedy the backlog of international talent, composed of 68% Indian nationals, 14% Chinese nationals and 18% applicants from the rest of the world.

If passed, Sec. 80303 will significantly enhance the capacity and competitiveness of the U.S. scientific research enterprise and increase the success of all Division B provisions by:

  1. Providing talented laborers in highly skilled jobs that cannot be adequately filled by U.S. citizens.
  2. Expanding the STEM workforce which, in turn, will boost the U.S. economy.
  3. Preventing “reverse brain-drain” from the U.S. back to the skilled workers' home countries.

Both USICA and COMPETES contain measures to strengthen the nation’s research security standards. The ASBMB has a well-defined position on balancing open science with security in the U.S. research enterprise.  We applaud efforts to protect intellectual property developed in the U.S., but we also caution lawmakers to implement policies that safeguard the collaborative nature of the scientific research ecosystem.

Supporting the STEM workforce

In addition to our above recommendations, the ASBMB backs provisions of both bills that aim to combat sexual harassment in science, support diverse graduate research training and education and expand capacity building within rural communities. We strongly encourage lawmakers to retain these measures to reduce barriers for talented individuals, regardless of socioeconomic, geographic and/or demographic identity, to contribute to the research enterprise.

Specifically, the ASBMB encourages swift passage of the clear and accountable provisions from the COMPETES Act that address systemic barriers faced by people who have been historically underrepresented in the scientific workforce, including:

  • The STEM Opportunities Act (H.R. 204) calls for performing research on the participation and trajectories of groups historically underrepresented in STEM education and the STEM workforce, increasing awareness of identified barriers, and implementing best practices for lowering these barriers at federal science agencies and higher education institutions.
    • The house version is preferred beacuse it extends caregiving felxibilities beyond priniciple investigators to also include eliegibilty for STEM trainees (e.g., students, postdoctorates and postbaccalaureates)
  • Rural STEM Education Research Act (H.R. 210) prescribes research and development of innovative methods to reduce the barriers facing rural students in accessing high-quality STEM education and support.
    • The house version is preferred because it has more research directives for understanding how to effectively advance rural STEM, wider engagement of federal agencies and additional provisions that would try to engage rural communities via EPSCoR modifications.
  • MSI STEM Achievement Act (H.R. 2027) provisions for increasing capacity and infrastructure at minority-serving institutions of higher education, including historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges or universities.
    • Because there is no equivalent in USICA, the house version should be added into the final Bipartisan Innovation Act to support efforts to bolster minority-serving institutions, leading to better retention fof historically marginalized groups in the STEM workforce.
  • Combatting Sexual Harassment in STEM Act (H.R. 2695) outlines preventative measures and response frameworks for addressing sexual and gender harassment in STEM.
    • The house version is preferred because it specifies gender discrimination as a qualifying form of discrimination and authorizes corresponding funding to conduct the proposed research.
  • Sec. 10304 of the NSF for the Future Act (H.R. 2225) contains a 50% increase in the number of graduate research fellowships and strengthens STEM graduate training policies via mentorship plans, career exploration and increased inclusivity.

In summary, it is essential that lawmakers succeed in passing a unified bill that reinforces scientific investments, workforce and infrastructure at a crucial time in history when innovation is key to saving lives and solving society’s most complex challenges.

About the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB)

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is an international nonprofit scientific and educational organization that represents more than 12,000 students, researchers, educators and industry professionals. The ASBMB strongly advocates for strengthening the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce and ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM. Learn more at www.asbmb.org.