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America (Begins to) COMPETE

Notwithstanding the nightmare of the spreading Gulf of Mexico oil spill, there was good news last week as sensible Washington folks headed to the beaches for the long weekend.

Late on Friday, the House of Representatives passed an important piece of U.S. competitiveness and innovation legislation the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 by a vote of 262 to 150. Here are the full text and summary, as well asthe House Science & Technology (S&T) Committee press release and a full breakdown of the vote.  Seventeen Republicans voted for the bill, providing a measure of bipartisan support for an important update of the nation’s signal innovation law that may now include such important new initiatives as support for regional innovation cluster initiatives such as we have advocated, the Department of Energy’s Energy Innovation Hubs, and a pilot clean energy innovation consortia program.

The House vote came as a huge relief, as the hitherto uncontroversial legislation was blocked twice within the past two weeks on the House floor, triggering significant alarm among the science and technology community, including here.  On Friday, though, S&T Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) used a rare procedure called a division of the question, which allowed separate votes on various parts of the amendment included in the May 13th Motion to Recommit.  This, as Teryn Norris of the Breakthrough Institute explains, effectively allowed the House to pass the bill with a standard majority vote, so that the original bill could be passed with only a few amendments, including a total authorization for five years and approximately $86 billion.  The bottom line: legislation has been passed that would continue the needed doubling of the budgets for the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy Office of Science, and National Institute of Standards and Technology and add new support levels for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, Energy Innovation Hubs, regional innovation clusters, and the higher education component of the RE-ENERGYSE proposal.

As for what’s next, the resuscitation of America COMPETES represents a victory for innovation advocates of all stripes, but Senate authorization and eventual appropriation will pose significant challenges.  Money is short, the needs are great, and as a forthcoming brief will argue new interventions and greater magnitudes of effort are necessary all along the clean energy spectrum, from basic research to full-scale commercialization.  So while we applaud House passage of the COMPETES bill, we cannot forget that a true leap forward for American innovation is far from achieved.