Science Bill Passes as the 114th Congress Ends

Just as the 114th Congress ended its second session, the Senate and House champions of a bill to provide direction for programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and other federal science agencies, got the legislation across the finish line. The final bill reflected common ground between House and Senate science committee leaders. Senator John Thine (R-SD), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, described the late-stage maneuvers this way: “It looked like the clock had run out, but the bipartisan team of House and Senate supporters behind this bill kept pushing.”

The final piece of legislation had a long, two-year history. On the House side, the Congressional direction for these science agencies was accomplished through the America COMPETES legislation, which passed the U.S. House in the Fall of 2015. The bill contained a controversial provision that authorized cuts to the NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate of 45% and the Geosciences Directorate (which funds climate science) of 8%.

Meanwhile, on the Senate side, the Chairman and Ranking Member of Senate science committee, Senators John Thune and Bill Nelson (D-FL) created a working group to solicit the input of stakeholders, including the science and higher education communities. Over the next year, Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI), the working group leaders, developed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA), which was widely supported. Yet, to get a final bill through each chamber, additional work was needed.

Congress’ lame duck session, the House and Senate leaders who had been working on the respective bills reached a compromise. A substitute amendment to the AICA, one addressing priorities in common to the two committees, was offered. The AICA, as passed by the Senate on a very early Saturday morning on December 10 and later in the House during a pro forma session on December 16, includes the following:

  • –     Reaffirms the merit review process at NSF;
  • –     Requires public notices of NSF awards to justify the use of federal funds by describing how the award:
    •     – Reflects the NSF mission;
    •       – Addresses intellectual merit and broader impacts criteria; and,
    •       – Clearly identifies research goals;
  • –     Uses “national interest” language to modify the broader impacts criteria;
  • –     Establishes an interagency working group to reduce administrative burdens on researchers;
  • –     Mandates a National Research Council report “to assess research and data reproducibility and replicability in interdisciplinary research” and “make recommendations for improving rigor and transparency in scientific research;” and,
  • –     Directs NSF to award research grants to investigate the security of election voting systems and the “role of the human factor” in cybersecurity.


Importantly, the final bill does not direct cuts to any areas of science. Given the potentially devastating cuts to SBE, FABBS is pleased that a bipartisan, bicameral compromise that inherently recognizes the value of all areas of science could be reached.

The complete bill can be found here.

1/3/16 – This article has been updated.