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Bill Seeks Billions to Bolster Research

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Science  23 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5756, pp. 1891a
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5756.1891a

Saying that academic research is the key to a strong economy, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has assigned the National Science Foundation (NSF) a central role in a multibillion-dollar proposal to boost U.S. competitiveness. And they're hoping that, for NSF, the second time around will be a charm.

The legislation, introduced last week and dubbed the National Innovation Act of 2005, would nearly double the NSF budget, now $5.5 billion, by 2011. It would create hundreds of new graduate fellowships, encourage all federal agencies to invest in high-risk research, and revise the tax code to promote more industrial spending on research. It recommends federal investment in advanced manufacturing, regional economic development, health care, and defense technologies. It would also create an interagency Council on Innovation to evaluate all relevant legislative initiatives.

Innovation trio.

From left, Senators Joseph Lieberman, George Allen, and John Ensign unveil competitiveness legislation.

CREDIT: KERRY ARNOT

“Whenever I meet with industry, they tell me that supporting university-based research is the single most important thing that we could do to bolster U.S. competitiveness,” said Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), co-sponsor of the proposal with Senator John Ensign (R-NV), at a press briefing. “It's the raw material from which they innovate.” Fourteen senators have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, S.2109, which closely tracks recommendations made 1 year ago by a blue-ribbon panel of business and academic leaders assembled by the Council on Competitiveness (http://www.compete.org/).

Even as the press briefing was taking place in the Capitol, three of the bill's co-sponsors were meeting at the White House with President George W. Bush to discuss a similar piece of legislation to bolster U.S. scientific prowess being prepared by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). That bill is expected to conform to an October report by the National Academies' National Research Council (Science, 21 October, p. 423).

Science lobbyists are thrilled by the bill's underlying message. The legislation “reflects a consensus among the nation's business and academic communities concerning actions we must take to ensure our future global competitiveness and our national security,” says the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 research-intensive universities. ASTRA, a consortium that lobbies for increased spending in the physical sciences and engineering, calls the bill its number-one legislative priority in 2006.

All that support will go for naught, however, unless Congress loosens the purse strings. Despite a 2002 law calling for a 5-year doubling of NSF's budget, Congress actually cut the agency's budget last year and gave it only a small increase this year. Lieberman says he expects things to be different this time around: “There's a new sense of urgency and a new level of understanding about the importance of university-based research. I think we can do it.”

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