Policy Update: Congress Passes American Innovation and Competitiveness Act

Lewis-Burke Associates LLC – December 16, 2016

On December 16, Congress passed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA, S. 3084) which sets policy for the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, and other cross-agency research programs. The legislation represents the culmination of months of Senate negotiations with the House, with last-minute passage in the House secured by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX). It is expected that President Obama will sign the bill into law.

The compromise version of AICA, which was announced by the Senate on December 5, is a successor to the America COMPETES Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-358). Unlike the House-passed and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (Commerce Committee)-approved versions of the legislation, the compromise bill does not contain authorized funding levels. Controversial language in previous House versions of the bill, such as Directorate-level authorization for NSF, as well as deep cuts in authorization funding levels for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences and Geosciences directorates was left out of the compromise version of AICA.

The legislation affirms NSF’s mission and current approach while directing updates in some areas to increase transparency and accountability. The legislation reaffirms support for the importance of the peer review process and encourages NSF to continue its new initiatives that increase transparency in the awarding of individual grants. The bill would also increase oversight of NSF facilities management, require congressional notification related to rotator salaries, direct NSF to update its conflicts of interest policy, and encourage a new National Academies report on research reproducibility and replication, all with the aim to increase accountability. None of these provisions contain controversial language or directives included in previous COMPETES drafts. The bill would direct NSF to create a new strategy on mid-scale research. AICA would also reaffirm support for several of NSF current research themes and education activities. These include support for programs related to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, broadening participation, undergraduate education, computer science for all, informal STEM education, sustainable chemistry, optics and photonics, and the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program.

Outside of NSF, the bill would create a new STEM advisory panel to allow stakeholders more input into interagency and Administration STEM decisions. The bill would also reauthorize the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program, which coordinates agency investments in high performance computing, cybersecurity, robotics, big data, and other IT-related areas. NSF and NIST would also be encouraged to conduct cybersecurity research on technology involved in voting and the role of human factors. The I-Corps program would be expanded to other research agencies.

As in the version approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in June, the bill would direct the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in coordination with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), to establish an interagency working group tasked with reducing administrative burden on federally funded investigators. The Working Group, composed of representatives from research funding agencies, would consider whether to implement processes for harmonizing grant proposal and progress report requirements across agencies and whether to expand the use of just-in-time procedures and simplified budgets in proposals. The Working Group is also tasked with creating a centralized researcher profile database for investigator biosketches and other credentials. Several of the AICA provisions designed to reduce administrative burden on researchers were addressed by legislation that passed Congress in December.

Unlike the House-passed COMPETES, AICA does not include provisions relating to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science – policy and funding included in the Senate’s comprehensive energy reform legislation that stalled earlier this year. The one exception is a provision that encourages the National Science and Technology Council to coordinate high-energy physics and fusion energy research across the federal government.

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