The hopes of US scientific societies that Congress would pass a bill to double research spending in each of the major non-military research agencies collapsed last week, when the chairs of the relevant committees in the House and Senate failed to reach agreement on the bill's contents.
After four months of negotiations between the staff of James Sensenbrenner (Republican, Wisconsin), chair of the science committee in the House of Representatives, and Senator Bill Frist (Republican, Tennessee), Sensenbrenner refused to support Frist's proposal in the House — almost certainly ending its prospects of passage this year.
Sensenbrenner wants a bill supporting increased research funding in information technology, whereas Frist backs a much broader bill supporting all types of research.
In a detailed letter sent to Frist on 19 September, Sensenbrenner said that Frist's proposals “would provide little support for scientific research funding while undermining the science committee's ability to operate as an effective legislative entity”.
If passed, Frist's bill would not guarantee a doubling of each agency's budget, but it would set an overall target for expenditure over several years. Sponsors hope this would influence the appropriations committees when they allocate the agencies' annual budgets.
Sensenbrenner is thought to oppose the bill mainly on the grounds of cost. But his letter argues that it would also reduce the prospects of Congress considering detailed legislation for science agencies — such as the NASA reauthorization bill passed this year — and would further reduce his committee's influence on the appropriations process.
Two days after Sensenbrenner's letter, the Senate unanimously passed Frist's bill, the Federal Research Investment Act. But without Sensenbrenner's support, it has little chance of being considered by the House during this session.
In an angry reply to Sensenbrenner, Frist indicated that the science committee chairman had failed to live up to promises made in their negotiations. “You simply are holding the Federal Research Investment Act up to a different standard than you do your own committee bills,” he wrote. He added that “anything less” than Sensenbrenner's support for the act “would be in direct contradiction to our previous negotiations”.
Scientific societies, including the American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society, have been trying to build support for the measure for over three years (see Nature 394, 5; 1998). They believe the bill will ensure research agencies supporting the physical sciences — such as the Department of Energy — will not be left behind as Congress backs the rapid expansion of life sciences at the National Institutes of Health.
Some science lobbyists have said that the bill should be abandoned if it fails in the current session. But according to staff, Frist will pursue it in the new Congress next year. Whatever happens in November's election, Sensenbrenner is not expected to chair the science committee. His departure will remove the largest single obstacle to the bill's passage.