House OKs billions for federal science, tech projects

Tech industry-backed bill is expected to go before the Senate on Friday amid lingering reservations about its price tag.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a mammoth tech industry-endorsed bill that calls for pouring some $33.6 billion into a bevy of federal science, technology and research programs.

By a 367-57 vote, the legislators approved the 470-page America Competes Act, which is the result of a Senate-House agreement reached earlier this week and melds earlier proposals broadly related to funding for education and research.

In a speech before the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) likened the spirit of the latest bill to the optimism of the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy pledged to send a man to the moon and back.

"Americans must continue to innovate in order to create new, thriving industries that will produce millions of good jobs here at home and a better future for the next generation," she said.

But the measure's steep price tag continued to draw opposition from a number of Republicans, who questioned how the bill's sponsors planned to finance their "lofty" proposals amid a growing federal deficit.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he believes the bill is well-intentioned but fails to recognize other things Congress could be doing to make American businesses more competitive, such as expanding free trade, extending and making permanent corporate tax cuts, tackling tort reform, and improving American schools.

"We regulate things until they can't hardly breathe, and we wonder why our companies can't compete as well around the world," Boehner said before the vote.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee and one of the bill's chief sponsors, took issue with Boehner's statements, noting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and major technology trade associations support the bill.

Indeed, a number of those groups in recent days have loudly applauded the provisions contained in the bill.

"Increased support for basic research and math and science education is the key to maintaining U.S. leadership," Semiconductor Industry Association Chairman Richard Templeton, who is also CEO of Texas Instruments, said in a statement after the bill's passage. "Today's action by the House demonstrates that Congress understands that connection."

Microsoft federal affairs director Jack Krumholtz called it "a groundbreaking effort." The Technology CEO Council--whose members include the chiefs of Dell, Motorola, Unisys, Intel and Hewlett-Packard--said the bill "represents a strong commitment from both parties to ensure our nation remains a competitive leader in the innovation economy."

The bill lays out a multibillion-dollar funding schedule for a number of science-related federal agencies over the next three years, including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's science programs and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It also authorizes hundreds of millions of dollars in education-related grants, including $150 million in state grants for K-12 science, technology, mathematics and engineering programs and nearly $300 million in grants to establish masters and bachelors degree programs for training math and science teachers.

A number of new government programs would also emerge under the bill's provisions, including an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) within the Energy Department focused on overcoming "long-term and high-risk" obstacles to development of new energy technologies, and a Technology Innovation Program within NIST that would award grants to small and medium-size companies for "high-risk, high-reward" research.

In other sections, the proposal suggests everything from a government-funded summit "to examine the health and direction of the United States' science and technology enterprises," to adoption of principles ensuring government-sponsored research data is shared with the public, to semiannual school events aimed at stimulating interest in science, technology, math and engineering.

As with all such bills, the ambitious funding authorizations approved on Thursday provide no guarantee that the money will actually be allocated in that way. That fate ultimately lies in the hands of the various appropriations committees, whose bills are then subject to congressional votes and the president's signature.

The Senate is expected to vote on the same proposal on Friday.

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