President Signs Major Competitiveness Legislation

January 6, 2011 | Devon Swezey,

On Tuesday, President Obama signed into law the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, a critical reauthorization of the landmark 2007 competitiveness bill that authorizes increased funding for critical science and technology agencies including the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Science and Technology.

Unfortunately, the ambition of the bill is much reduced from its original incarnation just four years ago, even as international economic competition has grown ever more fierce. The final version of the bill, passed by Congress on December 21, authorizes $45 billion in science, research, and education funding over three years, less than the five year, $85 billion authorization first approved by the House of Representatives in May of last year.

The bill's endorsement of clean energy priorities is mixed. While the legislation continues to authorize funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E)--an innovative agency of particular importance to solving our large-scale climate and energy challenges--the authorization of about $300 million per year is less than the $1 billion annual funding envisioned by the original COMPETES bill. The bill does not authorize any new funding for the Department of Energy's Energy Innovation Hubs, nor does it back an important, pilot-scale regional clean energy innovation consortium, pioneered by the New England Clean Energy Council and supported by Brookings, Breakthrough, and other partners, that would foster collaboration among public and private entities to improve the efficiency of clean energy R&D.

In June of 2010, the Breakthrough Institute, Brookings Institution, and Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released a report calling on Congress to use the America COMPETES reauthorization as an opportunity to strengthen U.S. competitiveness in the rapidly growing and critically important clean energy technology sector. Unfortunately, as you can see in the graphic below, the COMPETES reauthorization deviates significantly from our recommendations and neglects to endorse important new paradigms for organizing clean energy research activities to accelerate innovation.

Nevertheless, as Brookings' Mark Muro has written, the new reauthorization is still a win for science and technology agencies in an era of (perhaps increasingly severe) fiscal constraint. ARPA-E's authorization is extended; the bill creates a new "regional innovation program" to catalyze the creation of regional innovation clusters that are key to U.S. economic competitiveness; and the bill directs the Obama Administration to create the fist ever national competitiveness and innovation strategy, an effort championed by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) and influential think tanks like ITIF.

The next fight will be in the House Appropriations Committee, where the actual funding allocations for these critical programs will be adjudicated. It remains to be seen whether conservatives seeking a new era of "fiscal responsibility" will recognize, as George Will and David Brooks recently have, that cuts to the nation's most productive public investments, including those in science and technology, would be akin to "making an overweight aircraft flight-worthy by removing its engine." Given that that technology-based national economic competition has grown only more intense, science, technology, innovation, and economic growth advocates must do all they can to ensure that COMPETES fulfills its promise to rebuild America's technological leadership.

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See Also:

Strengthening Clean Energy Competitiveness: Opportunities for America COMPETES Reauthorization