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May 29, 2014

Science Comes FIRST

Tiffany Trader
science tech graphic

Between political partisanship and the long-running recession, federal funding for science education and research has had some difficult years. Despite the political gridlock that exists in Washington, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have generally been supportive of strategic science funding in the interest of national competitiveness. To that point, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee have approved the FIRST Act, which prioritizes NSF research as essential to the technological competitiveness of the United States.

The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology approved the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act (H.R. 4186) by a vote of 20-16. The bill funds research and development (R&D) to address national needs and also makes investments in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education programs.

“To remain globally competitive, we must ensure that our priorities are funded and that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely,” states Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas). “The FIRST Act keeps America first in areas of science and research that are crucial to economic growth. It focuses taxpayer investments for basic research in the critical areas of physical science and engineering. These are the fields that are essential for technological innovations that will lead to the creation of new jobs, new businesses and industries of the future. This bill strengthens the economy, improves people’s lives and creates a more open and responsive government.”

Experts understand that order for the United States to maintain competitiveness in the global economy, it must invest in key areas. There is a supercomputing race playing out on the international field and China in particular has a big lead, at least in terms of hardware. China’s Tianhe-2 system, declared the world’s fastest in 2013, is about twice as fast as the Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility.

The US still leads the world in R&D spending, but its technological advantage is slipping. Dominance in key fields, such as supercomputing, nanotechnology, life sciences, aerospace and lasers, is at stake. At current rates of investment, China’s R&D expenditure is expected to surpass the US’s in the next decade.

“In a time of tight budgets, the FIRST Act authorizes small overall funding increases for NSF and NIST in Fiscal Year 2015,” reads the official announcement from the committee.

There are new provisions in the FIRST Act that state the NSF must meet minimum standards of public accountability and transparency in its grant funding decisions. While the FIRST Act backers say it doesn’t change the NSF’s peer review process, the agency will be required to formally state how each grant’s scientific merits relate to the broad national interest. The additional layers of transparency and accountability were added to ensure that “only high quality research receives taxpayer funds.”

The FIRST Act expands support for formal K-12 STEM education and STEM participation in nonprofit competitions, out-of-school activities and field experiences related to STEM. Notably, computer science is now officially included in the scope of STEM education as are other academic subjects that build on traditional STEM fields.

“I am pleased this bill passed the full committee and is now ready for floor action,” states Research and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.). “During this time of fiscal uncertainty, the FIRST Act ensures dollars are stretched efficiently and effectively. This legislation strengthens accountability measures and transparency mechanisms while still providing flexibility for agencies to conduct basic research that will spur innovation. By setting priorities that drive investments in STEM, we better prepare our students for the jobs of the future and help to keep America competitive.”

On a final note, it’s worth pointing out that the bill makes some significant terminology changes. Here are several examples:

  • Instances of “high-performance computing” have been changed to “networking and information technology.”
  • “Supercomputer [systems]” changed to “high end computing [systems]”
  • “High performance [networking]” changed to “high end [networking]”
  • “The National High-Performance Computing Program” will now be called the “networking and information technology research and development program.”

One wonders what the impetus was for the deflation of terms away from HPC. And if the bill is passed, will the new terms affect the technologies and programs that are funded?

Although the bill made it past committee, govtrack gives it a 26 percent chance of being enacted.

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