The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved a bipartisan bill Wednesday designed to streamline science and technology research and development.
“My hope is that this bill helps reset how Congress approaches science policy,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, R- Colo., in a statement at the committee’s executive session.
Notably, the legislation includes a four percent increase in authorization for FY 2018 over FY 2017 for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
The bill received kudos from other senators after being approved. But Senator Deb Fischer, R-Neb., voted against the bill Wednesday due to the lack of a plan to offset the increase.
“I don’t doubt that this bill contains many positive provisions,” Fischer said, even citing some of the bill’s strengths. “But good things do not mitigate the need to offset our spending.”
She added: “If we do not plan how to offset the spending now, the likelihood that it will be done on the floor is minimal.”
The committee chairman, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. said in his opening remarks that the bill may still need some extra work before passing the full Senate, including a way to make sure the authorization increase is feasible.
Although authorization bills direct executive branch spending, most of the actual funding is contained in appropriations bills.
The proposed increase in authorizations comes after recent calls for more research funding.
For example, at a House Research and Technology subcommittee hearing earlier this month, an NSF official and others discussed the need to increase their extramural research budgets so other programs can grow as well.
The annual increase in the set-aside percentages for two programs — the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs — have impacted core research project funding at NSF, said Dr. Pramod Khargonekar at the hearing. Khargonekar is the assistant director for the directorate of engineering at NSF.
“We do not see annual increases in the set-asides for these programs as justified, especially at the cost of others, when the overall budget of the agency is flat,” Khargonekar said in his prepared statement.
Gardner and Sen. Gary Peters, D-MI, have been working on developing research policy since last year. Their working group hosted three roundtables and collected comments. The Commerce Committee also held a hearing in May.
“In order to ensure our nation’s long-term prosperity, we must commit to making considerable, predictable investments in research and development that will keep our country globally competitive,” Peters said in a statement.
Robert Atkinson, president of Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told FedScoop the bill is “overall quite good.”
But the four percent increase in authorization he said, should be more.
“Given the tight fiscal budget, you know, four percent is good,” he said.
Atkinson was a witness at the May hearing, where he called for improved efforts to link research with commercialization.
The bill contains many measures to do just that: it expands NSF’s Innovation Corps and promotes commercialization of new technologies. The bill also includes initiatives to increase engagement of underrepresented groups in STEM.
Atkinson said the bill would have been stronger on improving commercialization if there were reporting requirements for research universities on the topic.
“The secret to commercialization is that there is no secret,” Atkinson said. “It’s pretty clear what you need to do to do it well. It’s not rocket science; people have known it for 20 years.”
If the research universities were ranked by the commercialization of their research, Atkinson said, it would force them to address it.
“The real issue is frankly motivation,” he said.
In other measures to improve the research and development process, the legislation works to reduce administrative burdens on researchers by doing away with some reporting requirements. It would also establish an interagency working group to tackle those administrative burdens, led by the Office of Management and Budget and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
During discussions with the scientific research community, Peters heard that researchers were spending significant amount of time on paperwork and administrative requirements, said a spokesperson in Peters’s office.
The working group would explore developing a uniform grant format, and other measures to reduce the time spent on administrative tasks.