On 6 March 2012, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing on “Keeping America Competitive through Investments in R&D [Research and Development].” The hearing examined progress made towards achieving the goals of the America COMPETES Act, a 2007 law that aims to increase federal investments in science and strengthen science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-WV) stated that research has an important contribution to make to the nation’s future: “Innovation and job creation are essential, yet they are only part of the solution. We also need to improve job training to align our workforce with the skills demanded by the global economy.” Senators John Boozman (R-AR) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) lauded innovation and enterprise, but noted that in the current economic and fiscal climate, limited federal resources need to be distributed “prudently.”

Witnesses testifying before the panel were Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Dr. Subra Suresh, Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF); Dr. Patrick Gallagher, Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); and Dr. Mason Peck, Chief Technologist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The hearing focused on the direct potential economic benefits of R&D funding. The witnesses came prepared to argue that their agencies had prioritized those areas with the greatest possible impact.

Holdren stated that the Obama Administration understands the government’s current fiscal constraints. At $140.8 billion, the fiscal year (FY) 2013 request for federal R&D investment is essentially flat compared to the FY 2012 enacted amount. Additionally, Holdren highlighted the contributions of the Department of Energy Office of Science, NSF, and NIST—due to the nature of research conducted by these agencies, these three are “especially important to this Nation’s continued economic leadership” and global competitiveness. Holdren also argued that these agencies are worthy of funding increases on the order of 4.3 percent, with concomitant decreases to other agencies.

Suresh also tied NSF’s R&D funding to the economy: the proposed FY 2013 budget “moves our nation forward by connecting the science and engineering enterprise with potential economic, societal, and educational benefits in areas critical to creating high-quality jobs, growing the economy, and ensuring national security.” This message was echoed by Peck, who asserted that, “Investments in space and aeronautics technology stimulate the economy and contribute to the Nation’s global competitiveness through the creation of new products and services, new business and industries, and high quality, sustainable jobs.” Gallagher reiterated the importance of NIST to the economic future of the nation, saying the “proposed FY 2013 budget reflects NIST’s critical role in the Administration’s efforts to strengthen manufacturing through critical investments in key research and development areas.”

As reflected by questioning, Senators are keenly interested in the potential commercial developments resulting from federal research. In response, Suresh discussed NSF’s Innovation Corps and the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), two NSF programs that foster collaboration and innovation.

 


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