House passes major science, technology bill

Schools and universities urged the bill's passing for STEM funding.
Schools and universities could see millions more for STEM education.

The U.S. House of Representatives gave its assent on May 28 to $84 billion in federal funding to help keep the country competitive in the fields of scientific and technological innovation, just days before a new list suggested China is challenging America’s dominance in supercomputing.

Among other measures, the bill supports science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education through a coordination of activities at all levels.

Passage of the legislation, called the America COMPETES Act (H.R. 5116)—the biggest science bill that Congress is expected to consider this year—came on a third try. Republicans objecting to the cost of the bill succeeded in sidetracking it on two previous occasions.

The bill also approves funds over five years for basic and applied research programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology labs, and others. It passed 262-150.

The NSF would have access to more than $40 billion over the five-year period for research and education programs, although the actual money allotted is determined in annual spending bills. The bill still needs Senate approval.

“If we are to reverse the trend of the last 20 years, where our country’s technology edge in the world has diminished, we must make the investments necessary today,” said Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.

He said the bill puts basic research programs on a path to doubling their approved funding levels over the next decade. It supports the Advanced Research Project Agency, which is involved in high-risk, high-reward energy technology development; provides federal loan guarantees to smaller businesses pursuing new technologies; and offers scholarships for K-12 teachers working in STEM education.

Congress enacted a first version of the legislation in 2007 with a large majority in the House and a unanimous vote in the Senate.

But in a highly partisan election year when the federal deficit is at record levels, Republicans succeeded twice in blocking the Democratic-led initiative.

On May 13, Democrats were forced to pull the bill after Republicans pushed through an amendment combining crippling cuts to the bill with a provision cracking down on federal workers watching pornography on their office computers. Many Democrats, not wanting to face ads in the coming election charging that they had voted against an anti-pornography measure, voted for the amendment.

Legislation presented May 19 restored the programs the Republicans tried to kill but reduced to three years, rather than five, the life of the measure—thus cutting the original $85 billion price tag to about $47 billion. It also included the anti-pornography provision.

But Democrats made a losing gamble by bringing the bill up under a procedure that prevented Republicans from offering more amendments, but required a two-thirds majority for passage. The vote was 261-148 for passage, short of the two-thirds needed. Every Democrat supported it, but only 15 of 163 voting Republicans backed it.

The original 2007 act grew out of a 2005 National Academies report warning that the country’s economic future was jeopardized by its lack of focus on science and technology education.

Many college and university faculty rely on NSF funding to support their research, including an engineering professor at Northern Illinois University who created a video game that allowed students to design a desired movement or action using the required formulas and algorithms that apply to all types of engineering. Higher-ed researchers also submitted proposals to the NSF earlier this spring that would grant them access to Microsoft Corp.’s massive cloud-computing power for three years.

Every year, the agency reviews 45,000 grant requests and doles out 11,500 research awards.

“This bill continues to recognize that our nation’s long-term success is dependent on the strength of our education system,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., co-chairman of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus. “It coordinates STEM education efforts across the federal government, invests in grants and scholarships for college students pursuing STEM careers, and provides resources to diversify our future STEM workforce.”

The bill would encourage STEM participation from female students and underrepresented groups by creating scholarships and other incentives, and it also would examine the challenges that rural school districts face as they try to give students a 21st-century education, including sparse access to high-speed internet service and lab resources.

The bill also would provide funding for scholarship and training programs to recruit new K-12 math and science teachers, and to enhance the skills of existing teachers.

The House passed the bill just days before a Chinese supercomputer was ranked the world’s second-fastest machine in a list issued by U.S. and European researchers, highlighting the strides that China has made in its own ambitions to become a global technology center.

The Nebulae system at the National Supercomputing Centre in Shenzhen in southern China came in behind the U.S. Department of Energy’s Jaguar in Oak Ridge, Tenn., according to the list released May 31.

The Nebulae is capable of sustained computing of 1.271 petaflops—or 1,271 trillion calculations—per second, according to the semiannual TOP500 list, which said the Jaguar was capable of sustained computing of 1.75 petaflops.

The list highlighted China’s efforts to join the United States, Europe, and Japan in the global technology elite—and its sharp increases in research spending, driven by booming economic growth.

The communist Beijing government wants China to evolve from a low-cost factory into an prosperous “innovation society.” A 15-year government plan issued in 2006 promises support for areas ranging from computers to lasers to genetics.

Boosted by Nebulae’s performance, China rose to No. 2 overall on the TOP500 list, with 24 of the 500 systems on the list and 9.2 percent of global supercomputing capacity, up from 21 systems six months ago.

The United States held onto its overall lead, with 282 of the 500 systems and 55.4 percent of installed performance. Europe had 144 systems on the list, including 38 in Britain, 29 in France, and 24 in Germany.

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