US House passes NIST and DOE laboratory legislation

A new speedy process for passing noncontroversial legislation has worked in favor of NIST and DOE.

Originally published at FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News.

By voice votes the US House of Representatives passed two bipartisan bills to strengthen the nation's competitiveness by making changes in the programs of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Department of Energy’s national laboratories.  Both bills were passed on July 22 via a streamlined legislative mechanism for noncontroversial bills.

Provisions in HR 5035, the NIST Reauthorization Act of 2014, were originally part of the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST).  The FIRST bill was follow-on legislation to the now-expired America COMPETES Act.   FIRST was much criticized for its proposed changes to NSF's grant-making process and has not moved on the House floor.

Considered by the House as a stand-alone bill, HR 5035 was sponsored by Larry Bucshon (R-IN), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology.  In his remarks, Bucshon thanked House Science, Space and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and subcommittee ranking member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) “for their bipartisan work on this bill.”

The 29-page bill has two main components.  The first sets spending ceilings or targets for NIST and its programs.  Curiously, it authorizes spending for FY 2014 that ends in 50 days.  For FY 2015 the bill authorizes $855.8 million, identical to the figure in the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill that was passed by the full House on May 30. The administration requested$900 million, the same amount recommended in the Senate appropriations bill.

The second major component of HR 5035 pertains to NIST’s programs in education and outreach and in program assessment.  The largest part of the bill is devoted to the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).  Under the bill, manufacturing extension centers would be created to enhance competitiveness, productivity, and technological performance in United States manufacturing” through services and activities to small and medium-sized businesses.  Cost-sharing is required, as are periodic evaluations, reviews, and reports.  Other provisions call for research on improvements to the program.

The brief discussion on the House floor before passage of the bill was positive, with several members describing the importance of MEP to businesses in their districts.  In describing his bill, Bucshon said

This bill implements changes and updates to ensure responsible use of taxpayer funds during tight fiscal times, while still maintaining a competitive edge in the United States.  HR 5035 adds language to emphasize NIST’s role in advancing our Nation’s technological competitiveness and innovation ability, and enables more information sharing related to technological standards.  Additionally, this legislation codifies NIST’s outreach and education efforts.  Another critical program in this legislation is the Hollings Manufacturing Partnership, or MEP. This program provides assistance to small, U.S.-based manufacturing companies to help identify and adopt new technologies and manufacturing techniques.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), while expressing some disappointment in the FY 2015 authorization level, praised MEP: “The MEP program has proven to be a very successful public-private partnership for districts across the country.  For every dollar of investment, the MEP program generates almost $19 in new sales and$21 in new client investment.  This totals more than \$2 billion in new sales every year.”  The bill contained no policy provisions relating to NIST’s laboratory program.

The House then turned to HR 5120, the Department of Energy Laboratory Modernization and Technology Transfer Act of 2014. The 16-page bill was sponsored by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) and came to the House floor less than a week after it was first introduced.  HR 5120 has 10 bipartisan cosponsors, including Smith and Johnson.

The bill applies to DOE’s nonmilitary national laboratories and “any laboratory operated by the National Nuclear Security Administration, but only with respect to civilian energy activities thereof.” It has provisions regarding technology transfer, cross-sector partnerships and grant competitions to strengthen commercialization.  An example of the bill’s  provisions is found in Section 203:

EARLY-STAGE TECHNOLOGY DEMONSTRATION.—The Secretary shall permit the directors of the National Laboratories to use funds authorized to support technology transfer within the Department to carry out early-stage and pre-commercial technology demonstration activities to remove technology barriers that limit private sector interest and demonstrate potential commercial applications of any research and technologies arising from National Laboratory activities.

Describing his bill, Hultgren said it would give DOE

the tools it needs to allow new start-ups, small businesses, universities, and the general public at large to do what they do best: react to market signals and innovate. The Federal Government and the national labs fill a vital role doing the basic research needed to maintain America’s role as an innovation nation.  Far too often, however, the discoveries made in our labs get stuck in our labs.  This . . . bill seeks to break down many of those purely bureaucratic barriers.

Also speaking in support of HR 5120 was Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) who said

it significantly broadens the range of companies that can participate in a new pilot program with our Federal labs and allows for more flexible partnership agreement terms between the public and private sectors.  The bill also allows labs to use their technology transfer funds for activities that identify and demonstrate potential commercial opportunities for their research and technologies.  These partnerships between our national labs and the business community will help eliminate gaps in funding by facilitating a path for innovative ideas from basic research to commercial application.

Both Hultgren and Kilmer described the bill as bipartisan, with Hultgren noting that a similar bill, S1973, is under consideration in the Senate.   After brief discussion the House passed the bill by voice vote.

Richard M. Jones works in the Government Relations Division at the American Institute of Physics.