Politics: Celebrating the Passage of a Science Bill

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For all the complaints about government gridlock, the 111th Congress proved to be incredibly productive, passing health care legislation, an unprecedented stimulus, major tax cuts, allowing gays in the military and vindicating a landmark arms control treaty. When President Obama addressed the press before Christmas, he celebrated those achievements, many of which came in the lame duck period:

So I think it’s fair to say that this has been the most productive post-election period we’ve had in decades, and it comes on the heels of the most productive two years that we’ve had in generations.

But as Eli Kintisch notes over at Science magazine, there’s one important piece of legislation that Obama didn’t mention. On December 21, Congress passed the America COMPETES Act, a reauthorization of an earlier law passed under President George W. Bush that assured continued growth in the nation’s science budgets, including the Department of Energy’s vital Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E). The bill—which had been passed in the House earlier this year with reasonably bipartisan support, only to linger in the Senate—ensures that at least for the short-term, America will keep growing the research sectors it needs to compete in the clean energy race, not to mention the increasingly competitive field of international science. As White House science adviser John Holdren wrote in a blog post after the passage of COMPETES:

Passage of the Act comes at a crucial time in our Nation’s economic and technological trajectory—a time that President Obama characterized last month as a “Sputnik moment.” Just as Americans in 1957 quickly grasped the significance of the Soviet Union’s historic launch of the world’s first artificial satellite—responding aggressively with new investments in research and development (R&D) and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education—Americans today are recognizing that we are once again on the brink of a new world. The decisions we make today about how we invest in R&D, education, innovation, and competitiveness will profoundly influence our Nation’s economic vitality, global stature, and national security tomorrow.

Kintisch cites a few major U.S. scientists who wish that President Obama and the White House had made more noise about the bill’s passage, although the press (including myself) barely noted the legislation either. I suspect that has less to do with the importance of America COMPETES itself than the fact that the incredibly busy lame duck session, coming right up against the Christmas holidays, left little bandwidth for other stories. I agree with National Academy of Engineering President Charles Vest that the bill’s passage was a “major deal,” but science is always going to lose out to arms control, civil rights and just about everything else that was on the table last week.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the significance of America COMPETES. As I’ve written time and time again, we’ve never taken the scale of the energy research challenge seriously, spending pennies on the dollar when it comes to energy research—and it’s been a bipartisan failure over decades. It’s not just about climate change and renewable power—the country is desperately in need of sustainable growth, and that comes from true innovation of the sort that has always buoyed our economy in the past, from the development of better wheat seeds to the IT revolution. As President Obama said last month:

We need to do what America has always been known for:  building, innovating, educating, making things.  We don’t want to be a nation that simply buys and consumes products from other countries.  We want to create and sell products all over the world that are stamped with three simple words:  “Made In America.”  That’s our goal.

America COMPETES is just a down payment on the investments that will be needed to get us there, but at least it’s a start. That’s worth a holiday cheer.