Public Policy

President Signs Bill Setting Policy for NSF, NIST

January 9, 2017 1042

The National Science Foundation pays for much of the university-based social and behavioral science research in the United states, and on Friday President Obama sign a bill setting policy for the NSF. The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act updates – in part – the America COMPETES Act first passed in 2007 and later updated in 2010 by setting parameters for federal research and technology policy key agencies such as NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The bill was passed at the 11th hour by the last Congress; Obama’s signature came after a new Congress had convened.

Where the new law differs from the previous COMPETES bills is that it does not include budget authorizations for the agencies. In the federal process, spending usually is first authorized by one law before it appropriated by another. A specific COMPETES-style authorization bill for the coming fiscal year has not be introduced in Congress.

While the bill focused on strengthening the basic research mechanism for physical science and technology and for creating opportunities for public-private initiative, early versions of the bill were less welcome for social and natural science.

The biggest and most welcome change, from the viewpoint of the social science community, is the removal of directions telling the NSF exactly how much it could spend on each of its seven grant-making directorates – and which in the process reduced the amount the foundation usually spends on social science and on geosciences. But since it’s no longer an authorization bill, such language did not have a place.

The bill retains language which sets expectations about what federally funded research should accomplish, focused on the general themes of intellectual merit and broader impact. This includes language about being high quality and an in the national interest. While anodyne and hardly controversial, such language has been used to bludgeon social science research that might have a silly-sounding title or focus on something outside the U.S. in attacks accompanied by efforts to reduce or eliminate funding for the research.

“I’m proud to see the President sign the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act into law today,” Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who introduced the bill alongside Michigan Democrat Gary Peters. “A strong, bipartisan effort, this legislation is the result of nearly two years of work to gather input from the scientific community, universities, and interested stakeholders.”


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