House Republicans Block Bid to Increase Federal Support for Scientific Research

May 13, 2010

A Democrat-led effort to expand federal support for university research hit a roadblock on Thursday when the House of Representatives accepted a Republican proposal to trim spending levels and impose new conditions on the government and on institutions.

The House voted, 292 to 126, in favor of the Republican proposal, effectively halting Democratic plans to pass a five-year renewal of the America Competes Act. Congress first approved the bill in 2007 with the goal of doubling within seven years the total amount of federal spending on long-term basic research.

The current law expires in October, and the proposed renewal would have cut back the rate of spending increases in the 2007 plan by more than 10 percent, meaning the doubling instead would occur over a 10-year period. That still wasn't enough to satisfy Republicans at a time of economic turmoil.

The reauthorization measure represents "excessive spending," said Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, the top Republican on the House science committee, who offered the proposal. Almost half of all House Democrats voted for Mr. Hall's amendment, leading Democratic leaders to postpone further action on the bill.

The science committee had approved the measure on April 28 by a vote of 29 to 8, though Mr. Hall promised at the time to revisit his objections on the House floor.

Mr. Hall's successful amendment included a variety of provisions that attracted support from House members, including language requiring the firing of any federally sponsored employee found viewing pornography on a government computer. Mr. Hall complained that the National Science Foundation last year reported that it only briefly suspended NSF employees found to spend large portions of their workdays looking at pornography.

Mr. Hall's amendment also would require all universities accepting federal research money to permit military recruiters on their campuses, and would provide additional federal resources to colleges serving large numbers of soldiers in scientific fields.

Congress passed the original America Competes Act after the National Academies issued a report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," that warned the country was risking its long-term economic health by failing to spend enough money on science education.

The NSF would get $7.5-billion in the 2011 fiscal year, which begins in October, and $10.2-billion in 2015, according to the version of the bill approved last month by the House science committee. The original Competes Act of 2007 had projected that the NSF would get $9-billion in 2011 and $13.7-billion in 2015, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The second-largest portion of the bill, the Energy Department's Office of Science, would get $5.2-billion in 2011 and $6.9-billion in 2015. It had been scheduled for $6.5-billion in 2011 and $10.2-billion in 2015, according to the association's analysis.

Mr. Hall's amendment would cut spending levels down to amounts authorized for the current fiscal year, and would reduce the duration of the act's renewal to three years rather than five years.

'You Should Be Embarrassed'

The chairman of the science committee, Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, said he understood the federal government faced urgent budget problems but warned that such problems could be even worse in the future if the country failed to invest in its technological pre-eminence.

Mr. Gordon said he was especially frustrated by the apparent success of Mr. Hall in using the issue of pornography to help defeat higher spending levels for scientific research. "Nobody seriously thinks that we don't want to deal with pornography here, for God sakes," Mr. Gordon told lawmakers at the conclusion of the House debate. "If you vote for this," he said of Mr. Hall's amendment, "you should be embarrassed."

Despite the opposition among Republicans, the bill was largely supported by industry, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers among hundreds of organizations writing in support of the measure.

The Chamber of Commerce's senior vice president in charge of education and work-force development, Arthur J. Rothkopf, said he hoped Congress would reconsider the matter, while acknowledging the effectiveness of politically emotional issues such as pornography. "It's an election year," Mr. Rothkopf said.

Earlier in the debate over the bill, the House voted, 250 to 174, in support of an amendment by Rep. George Miller of California, chairman of the House education committee, that would require public universities receiving money through the bill to comply with union requests for information. The amendment was an attempt by Mr. Miller to help a union representing postdoctoral students negotiate a contract with the University of California.