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Senate, House at Odds Over How to Boost Science Research

House and Senate lawmakers are eager to boost domestic spending on science and technology, but they have yet to agree on a common approach for providing more federal research dollars.

The House favors a piecemeal approach with modest spending increases doled out by individual agencies. The Senate, by contrast, favors broad legislation with billions in new spending and a measure to improve science and math education that Senate leaders vowed to fast-track today.

In an unusual bipartisan event, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) today jointly unveiled the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence In Technology, Education and Science) Act to boost science and technology by increasing science-related funding for several federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and NASA.

The bill implements recommendations for promoting scientific innovation that were included in a 2005 National Academies of Science report and a 2004 report by the Council on Competitiveness that highlighted mounting deficiencies in these areas in the United States.

The bill will “ensure America remains competitive and strong in this century,” Reid said, noting math and science are areas where domestic research is “not what it was.”

Beyond authorizing billions of dollars in new spending for federal research, the legislation includes numerous provisions to improve math and science education at the elementary and secondary levels. It also establishes a President’s Council on Innovation and Competitiveness to develop an agenda to promote innovation and Competitiveness.

The Senate version — which Senate Energy Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) estimated includes $16 billion in new spending over four years — allows much more generous funding levels than the narrower companion legislation passed by the House Science and Technology Committee last week.

That effort — the Sowing the Seeds Through Science and Engineering Research Act (H.R. 363) — allows federal agencies to award grants to scientists at more modest spending levels. For instance, under the version passed by the committee, the National Science Federation would be required to spend at least 3.5 percent of its research funds on the grants, while the Department of Energy would be allowed $25 million annually to run its own grant program.

By contrast, the Senate bill would more than double NSF’s funding from about $5.6 billion in fiscal 2006 to $11.2 billion in fiscal 2011, while boosting Energy’s science budget by $1.6 billion over the same period.

During a markup of the House bill last week, the bill’s author, House Science Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), said he had removed earlier funding increases to accommodate concerns by the Senate. A Gordon aide said that authorization levels will be handled separately by agency.

The aide added that two separate Gordon bills are designed to address research reforms advocated by the NAS. One house bill, H.R. 362, would offer scholarships to math and science teachers, while another, H.R. 364, would create an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to focus on energy technology.

The Senate bill is likely to move sooner than the House bill.

Reid and McConnell said they will dispense with committee action and bring the bill directly to the floor, which co-sponsor Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) said could happen after the Easter recess in April.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) suggested that the bill will likely pass easily, noting that 70 Senators and three committees have already worked on earlier pieces of the bill.

The Gordon staffer said that H.R. 363 would soon move to the House floor as well, although hearings have yet to be scheduled on the other bills.

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