Skip to Highlights
Highlights

Scientific and technological innovation and a workforce educated in advanced technology are critical to the long-term economic competitiveness and prosperity of the United States. In recent years, leaders in government, business, and education have reported their concerns that declining federal funding for basic scientific research could diminish the United States' future economic competitiveness. These leaders have also reported their concerns that our educational system is producing too few students trained in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), which they believe may drive jobs in technical fields--followed by jobs in manufacturing, administration, and finance--from the United States to other countries. Congress passed the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act (COMPETES Act) of 2007 with the overall goal of increasing federal investment in scientific research to improve U.S. economic competitiveness. To that end, the act also increased support for education in STEM fields. Specifically, the act authorized $33.6 billion from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2010, in appropriations to be spent by four federal agencies: (1) the Department of Education, (2) the Department of Energy (DOE), (3) the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) within the Department of Commerce, and (4) the National Science Foundation (NSF). Within these four agencies, the act authorized funding for 24 new programs and the expansion of 20 existing programs to increase federal investment in basic scientific research and STEM education in the United States. The act also authorized the establishment of a new agency--the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)--within DOE to support transformational energy technology research projects to enhance the country's economic and energy security. In addition, the act established specific goals for some of the individual programs and includes a number of reporting provisions. Section 1008 of the act expresses the sense of Congress that each executive agency conducting research in STEM fields should strive to support and promote innovation by setting a goal of allocating an appropriate percentage of its basic research budget toward funding high-risk, high-reward research. The act describes high-risk, high-reward research projects as those that should also (1) meet fundamental scientific or technical challenges, (2) involve multidisciplinary work, and (3) involve a high degree of novelty. With respect to agencies conducting basic STEM research, the COMPETES Act provides for the following actions: (1) Goal setting--Agencies are annually required to report whether they have set a percentage funding goal for high-risk, high-reward research. (2) Spending toward goal--Agencies that set such a goal must report whether the goal is being met by the agencies and describe the activities funded. (3) Manner of reporting--Agencies are required to report this information to Congress along with documents supporting their annual budget. The COMPETES Act requires GAO to evaluate, within 3 years following its enactment, the effectiveness of authorized programs. To satisfy this reporting requirement, we briefed your staffs on the results of our work on August 5, 2010, and this report provides additional details. Our reporting objectives for this review were to examine (1) the extent to which the four agencies that received funding have obligated and reported funding for new or expanded programs and activities and (2) the effectiveness of the new or expanded programs and activities in meeting the goals of the act.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy 1. To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation should each establish a percentage goal to fund high-risk, high-reward research, and in setting a goal, cooperate and coordinate with other agencies funded under the COMPETES Act that perform basic scientific research--as well as OMB and OSTP--to more clearly define and identify these research activities.
Closed - Not Implemented
DOE disagreed with this recommendation at the time of report publication and, according to officials, has not taken action to implement it.
Department of Commerce 2. To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation should each establish a percentage goal to fund high-risk, high-reward research, and in setting a goal, cooperate and coordinate with other agencies funded under the COMPETES Act that perform basic scientific research--as well as OMB and OSTP--to more clearly define and identify these research activities.
Closed - Implemented
This recommendation is closed - implemented. In its letter commenting on our report, the Department of Commerce, which oversees NIST, concurred with our recommendation. NIST has continued to set a goal for such research. For example, in fiscal year 2015, NIST set a goal to invest 10% of its laboratory research resources for high-risk, high-reward research and reported that it allocated about 26% to support such research.
National Science Foundation 3. To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation should each establish a percentage goal to fund high-risk, high-reward research, and in setting a goal, cooperate and coordinate with other agencies funded under the COMPETES Act that perform basic scientific research--as well as OMB and OSTP--to more clearly define and identify these research activities.
Closed - Implemented
NSF's letter commenting on our report did not concur with this recommendation. However, more recently officials with NSF explained that it does pursue potentially transformative research, which is similar to high-risk, high-reward research for which it has set a funding goal.
Department of Commerce 4. To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation, should each report this information as part of their annual budget submissions to Congress--which are available to the public--as provided by the act.
Closed - Implemented
In its letter commenting on our report, the Department of Commerce, which oversees NIST, concurred with our recommendation, and stated it would direct NIST to include its percentage goal for high-risk, high-reward research with its budget submission to Congress and, later, to the public. In subsequent years, NIST has continued to do so.
Department of Energy 5. To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation, should each report this information as part of their annual budget submissions to Congress--which are available to the public--as provided by the act.
Closed - Not Implemented
DOE did not implement this recommendation. In its annual budget submissions for FY 2014 and FY 2015, DOE included a section that the agency identified as "In compliance with the reporting requirements in the America COMPETES Act of 2007 (P.L. 110-69, section 1008)." However, while the section includes a discussion of high-risk, high-reward research, the material in this section does not include a percentage goal to fund high-risk, high-reward research or a clear indication that they chose not to set one, as called for in the COMPETES Act.
National Science Foundation 6. To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation, should each report this information as part of their annual budget submissions to Congress--which are available to the public--as provided by the act.
Closed - Implemented
NSF's letter commenting on our report did not concur with this recommendation. NSF reports on transformative research in its budget documents provided to Congress. For example, in its FY2015 budget request, NSF set a strategic goal to provide resources for potentially transformative research. NSF reported in this document that it met its goal to fund 100 percent of funds awarded for unusually novel, potentially transformative, interdisciplinary research, but was still working to achieve its goal to review and track such research.

Full Report

GAO Contacts