FIRST Act passes House Science Committee

The markup and vote on the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act (FIRST) Act by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology was finally completed on Wednesday, May 28th. The bill, which has been of great concern to advocates of basic research in the sciences, authorizes spending for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 2014 and 2015. Votes fell cleanly along party lines, with Republicans retaining language that would dictate authorization amounts to specific NSF directorates – including reducing Geoscience (GEO) funding by $33 million and Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) funding by $50 million – alter the NSF’s merit review process, and keep overall funding levels flat in 2014 and 2015. Many scientific societies, including GSA, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Geosciences Institute, expressed their deep concern with the bill prior to the markup, and letters from eleven organizations were entered into the record in Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s opening statement. (See letters cosigned by GSA from the Geosciences Working Group and the Task Force on American Innovation.)

During a marathon 6-hour markup session, 28 amendments were introduced, with recorded votes requested on nearly all of them and concluded in a second session a week after the markup started. Most of the Democratic amendments were intended to increase funding to the NSF and remove sections imposing restrictions on the operation of the merit review process, but few made it through the final vote. Two amendments passed by a voice vote, including one introduced by Rep. Lipinski (D-IL) adding language in support of informal science education through museums and science centers, and one introduced by Rep. Lofgren (D-CA) which reduced the embargo period on publications of federally-funded research from 24 months to 12 months (aligning with last year’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy memo).

Republican amendments passed included one to reduce the SBE directorate authorization amount back to $150 million – after being increased in the subcommittee markup-  (introduced by Rep. Rohrabacher, R-CA) and a directive to completely eliminate the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) and transfer any functions deemed necessary to National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The NTIS, which was established in 1988 to collect and organize scientific, technical, engineering, and business information generated by government-sponsored research and development, has been criticized from both sides of the aisle for losing money by charging for federal reports which are often freely available from their sources.

The final votes on FIRST coincided with the passage of the 2015 House Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations bill on the same day. In the CJS bill the NSF received a $227 million increase to $7.4 billion, $153 million above the 2015 Presidential budget request and a significant higher amount than the $7.17 billion in the FIRST Act. This compounds the awkwardness of the FIRST Act authorizing funding at lower levels than what has been appropriated in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 and is being spent for the fiscal year already in progress. The Senate Appropriations Committee is currently considering their version of the CJS bill for 2015; if the bill ultimately passes both houses and becomes law, the funding amounts will supersede those in FIRST but specific provisions of the FIRST bill could still be incorporated into the budgeting process.

— Jessica Ball
GSA Science Policy Fellow