Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Ellen Kuo
Thursday, February 10, 2022
Congress Takes Another Step Closer to Improving America’s Competitiveness

On January 25, the House Science Committee issued a statement on its portion of a massive bill, the America COMPETES Act of 2022 (H.R. 4521) focused on improving America’s competitiveness in engineering biology, as well as improving diversity. When it reached the House floor for passage, Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) called the bill a holistic approach to state-of-the-art research and development (R&D). COMPETES combines individual bills with modifications and was passed 222–210 with only one Republican supporting the passage and one Democrat voting against—unlike a similarly focused Senate bill, the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competitions Act of 2021. Now action turns to reaching an agreement with the Senate to reach compromise text that both chambers can accept.

The House Committee on Rules met the week of January 31 to grant a rule that provided a structured amendment process for floor consideration of the COMPETES Act. Members submitted 603 amendments to the text of Rules Committee Print 117-31  that would affect the bill. House Rules met on February 1 to determine the rule and which amendments would be considered on the House floor February 2-4. The rule for floor debate was adopted 219–203 on February 2 and made in order 261 amendments. On the House floor most amendments were packaged into three en bloc amendments. The manager’s amendment from House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson was automatically adopted under the rule, making technical corrections, and clarifies changes, enhances federal coordination, adds worker protections, amends definitions, and removes signature authority for U.S. Department of Energy lab directors to Division B of the bill, Research and Innovation. No amendments on “gain-of-function research of concern” or what the scientific community correctly terms “enhanced potential pandemic pathogen research“ which may require a higher oversight level, were made in order by Rules.  “Gain-of-function research” is being misused to describe potentially risky research that enhances a pathogen to increase virulence or transmissibility in humans. In fact, this research technique, which gives an organism a new property or enhances an existing one for purposes of study, has supported medical breakthroughs.  

Highlights of the print include: 
  • The bill includes in Division B, Section 10602, the FASEB-endorsed Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act, H.R. 144  under Title V, which would establish a two-year pilot program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to enable early-career scientists to conduct research at an institution of their choice with authorized funding of $250 million in fiscal years (FY) 2021 and 2022. 
  • Division B had areas that were amended, including Reschenthaler/Houlahan Amendment 203, which directs a study on the feasibility of providing research security services to further protect the research security enterprise. Another was Wild/Gallagher Amendment 256 that directs the U.S. Department of State, in consultation with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and other scientific agency leaders, to work with U.S. ally countries to establish international security policies and procedures for protecting research in key technology areas from adversaries.
  • Also under Division B was the “Department of Energy Science for the Future” (H.R. 3593) text, which authorizes the director of the Office of Science to steward scientific user facilities and coordinate programs and activities of the Office of Science. In the area of biological and environmental research, the bill authorizes an R&D program in biological systems science, as well as climate and environment science, to develop new energy technologies and to support the department’s energy, environment, and national security missions. This includes research into genomic science focusing on the fundamental research on plants and microbes to increase systems-level understanding of the complex biological systems that will be useful in areas such as developing bio-based materials and fuels. 
  • There is also the directive that the director of the Office of Science employ all available approaches and funding mechanisms to address science laboratory infrastructure needs. A mid-scale instrumentation program is to be established to enable the acquisition and development of instruments ranging in cost between $1 million and $20 million that would significantly accelerate scientific breakthroughs at user facilities with $500 million for each of FYs 2022–2026 to improve lab infrastructure. 
  • H.R. 3593 also supports the scientific workforce by enhancing increased collaboration with teachers and scientists through programs that facilitate such collaboration between K–12, university students, early-career researchers, faculty, and the National Laboratories. The bill includes the use of proven techniques to expand the number of individuals from underrepresented groups pursuing skills or degrees relevant to the office’s mission. 
  • Foster Amendment 86 was also adopted that would allow Office of Science funds to be used for the National Virtual Biotechnology Lab. 
  • In the area of emerging infectious diseases, the bill calls for the establishment of the Office of Science Emerging Infectious Disease Computing Research Initiative that advanced computational and networking capabilities in order to prevent, prepare for, and respond to emerging infectious diseases, including COVID–19.
  • The bill specifies that the U.S. Secretary of Energy shall coordinate with the NSF director and others to establish within the Office of Science this cross-cutting research initiative to leverage the federal government’s innovative analytical resources and tools, user facilities, advanced computational and networking capabilities in order to prevent, prepare for, and respond to such threats. An Emerging Infectious Diseases High Performance Computing Research Consortium, with membership from private industry and higher education, is also part of the bill directing NSF and the OSTP director to support the initiative by providing a centralized entity for multidisciplinary, collaborative, emerging infectious disease R&D using high-performance computing and advanced data analytics technologies and processes. The bill also explicitly prohibits carrying out “gain-of-function research of concern.” 
  • Other areas of the bill, such as the NSF for the Future Act (H.R. 2225), call for multiyear authorized funding for NSF, starting at $12.5 billion in FY 2022 up to $17.94 billion in FY 2026 for a total of $78.01 billion. It also establishes a new directorate for science and engineering solutions that will accelerate use-inspired and translational research and development to advance solutions to pressing societal challenges. An assistant director will lead the directorate along with an advisory committee to assess the directorate’s activities and propose new strategies.
  • NSF is also being restructured by creating a chief diversity officer and improving its research security with a chief research security officer, in charge of monitoring security risks, establishing a risk assessment center, and supporting research on misconduct in the research environment. NSF will also support research security training. The bill expands graduate STEM education where funding proposals are to include a mentoring plan for graduate students. It supports activities to facilitate career exploration for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers and creates a requirement for funding proposals to include individual development plans for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers and provides supplemental funding to facilitate professional development activities.
  • The bill also updates the Graduate Research Fellowship Program to address workforce demand, increase the cost of education allowance, recruit a more diverse pool of applicants, and improve the evaluation of mechanisms for supporting graduate student education and training. An expansion effort through a pilot program that will require multi-institution proposals seeking funding in excess of $1 million to be submitted in partnership with emerging research institutions is included as a continued Congressional expression of support for EPSCoR that aids in research and education capacity building. 
  • The STEM Opportunities portion (H.R. 204) of COMPETES would ensure full engagement of the entire talent pool. It provides for research and data collection on the participation and trajectories of groups historically underrepresented in STEM studies and careers; raises awareness about the barriers faced by these groups; and implements best practices for lowering these barriers at federal science agencies and higher education institutions.  In addition, grants would be provided to implement or expand evidence-based reforms to increase the number of individuals from underrepresented groups. OSTP would provide guidance to agencies to establish policies to provide no-cost extensions and flexibility in award start time to grantees with caregiving responsibilities. The bill also requires federal science agencies to implement recommendations from the 2016 OSTP report, “Reducing the Impact of Bias in the STEM Workforce.” 
  • The bill included amendments that were aimed at anti-Asian sentiment. Chu Amendment 46 expressed a sense of Congress focused on the importance of opposing the targeting of Chinese researchers and academics based on race. Eshoo Amendment  77 directs the president to ensure that the America COMPETES Act’s provisions aimed at countering the Chinese Communist Party’s influence are not implemented in a manner that results in the discrimination of people of Asian descent. Meng Amendment 163 amendment expressed a sense of Congress condemning anti-Asian racism and discrimination.
  • Two amendments from Sherill called for a Comptroller General’s report and a General Accountability Office report on the impact of the act on inflation and an examination of how funds appropriated for this act were spent. 
Note: original amendments numbers are renumbered in this article  as listed under Rule for House floor consideration.