By Connor Dacey, GSA Science Policy Fellow
Over the past couple of months, there has been an uptick in interest for federally-supported science and research in both the executive and legislative branches.
President Biden’s recently-released infrastructure proposal, known as the American Jobs Plan, includes $40 billion for infrastructure improvements at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) national labs, $50 billion for a new technology directorate within the National Science Foundation (NSF), and $30 billion for research and development (R&D) to encourage job creation and innovation in fields such as supercomputing and advanced energy technologies. The goal of these investments is to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of scientific research across the United States (U.S.).
Congress has also been interested in the topic of federal support for science, technology, and research. During recent hearings, both Democrats and Republicans have expressed their support for the U.S. to develop its existing STEM talent while also adequately addressing concerns relating to science funding, especially as many students and early-career professionals are still reeling from the lingering impacts of COVID-19 on scientific research and innovation. There are also concerns about increased international competition from countries such as China. Witnesses at numerous congressional hearings have testified about China’s increased investments in R&D, and their likelihood to surpass the U.S. in scientific research and technology if more support is not given to U.S. agencies, institutions, researchers, and scientists. Numerous bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate to address science funding, including the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), the NSF For the Future Act, the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act (SALSTA), and the American Innovation Act.
The EFA (S.1260) was recently reintroduced in the Senate in late April 2021 by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and has bipartisan support from members including Senator Todd Young (R-IN), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), and Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT). The overall goal of this bill is to “make a new commitment to federal investment in research, supply chains, and the skills of all Americans to ensure our country wins the strategic competition with China and other nations to lead the world in technology and innovation”. As introduced, the EFA has three primary purposes: (1) to establish a new Directorate for Technology and Innovation at NSF whose primary focus will be on the innovation and commercialization of applied research within specific technology subject areas, (2) to authorize $100 billion over five years for this new Directorate, and (3) to allow the new Directorate to have increased flexibility and control of its personnel and management capabilities. It also authorizes up to “$10 billion over five years for the Department of Commerce to invest in regions throughout the country to invest in technology and innovation.”
Recently, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a legislative hearing on the EFA. Witnesses at this hearing advocated for increasing funding for R&D, including more diversity in the STEM workforce, and expanding partnerships and collaboration between the academic, public, and private sectors. Although senators did generally support the goals of the EFA, many shared concerns about where the funding would be going if this bill was to pass and become law. Some senators wanted to be given assurance that the research funding would be spent equitably across all geographic areas in the country (especially more rural locations) as opposed to being allocated to the same cities or regions that have traditionally received funding.
The committee then held a markup hearing for the EFA on May 12th to further discuss some of these concerns and vote on dozens of amendments to the original bill. For example, one of the adopted amendments would reduce the $100 billion authorized for the new Directorate for Technology and Innovation to nearly $45 billion; NSF’s other programs and agency budget as a whole would increase from $8.5 billion to $11.1 billion over five years, and the DOE’s national laboratories would receive $17 billion after some senators expressed concerns about NSF and DOE duplicating efforts. There was also the adoption of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration Science (NASA) authorization bill that would require the agency to fund two commercial designs for a moon landing as part of the Human Landing System and once again bring humans to the surface of the moon. These amendments all trace back to the EFA’s original goals of helping the U.S. lead the world in science and technology innovation, though it is clear that the EFA is very much in a state of rapid change and expansion. Ultimately, the committee voted 24-4 to pass the EFA with the proposed changes. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hopes to bring EFA to the senate floor for a vote by the end of the month.
Another bill, the NSF For the Future Act (H.R. 2225), is sponsored by House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK), as well as Subcommittee on Research and Technology Chairwoman Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI), and Ranking member Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL). This bill focuses specifically on the role of NSF, authorizing a doubling of NSF’s budget by fiscal year 2026. Similar to EFA, this bill would create a new NSF Directorate but at a smaller scale; the bill would create a Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions within NSF that has an “initial budget of $1 billion in fiscal year 2022 and grow to $5 billion over five years.” Recently, the committee held two hearings (hearing 1 and hearing 2) focused specifically on this bill. Overall, witnesses at these hearings discussed the importance of increasing funding for NSF to help support research and spur innovation across the nation. Members on both sides of the political aisle were especially interested in how the establishment of the new Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions would help spur applied or use-based research, as opposed to basic or curiosity-driven research. The hearings also focused heavily on how this bill would increase opportunities for public, academic, and private partnerships as it relates to research and innovation.
The Research and Technology subcommittee held a markup hearing on May 13th to discuss twelve separate amendments to the original bill. These amendments ranged from allowing community colleges and two-year institutions to be eligible for NSF funding, to requiring more stringent protections and safeguards from international theft of American research and innovation. All twelve amendments were agreed to and passed within the subcommittee. Ultimately, the subcommittee voted to move The NSF for the Future Act with the proposed amendments to the full committee for discussion and consideration.
Several other bills have been introduced that call for increases in federal R&D. Earlier this year, Rep. Lucas introduced a Republican-backed bill called the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act (SALSTA). This bill would have numerous functions. First, aims to protect American interests and research from countries such as China and others that are allegedly engaged in the theft of intellectual property, and also require investments in critical research areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum science to help maintain the U.S.’s international leadership in these areas. It would double the budget of numerous scientific agencies over a ten-year period, including the NSF, DOE Office of Science, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It would also “expand the STEM workforce and enhances the American talent pipeline” while “investing in the science and technology to drive the development of cleaner, more efficient, low cost, advanced energy like advanced nuclear, battery storage, and carbon capture technologies.” Similarly, Senator Dick Durban (D-IL) introduced the American Innovation Act. This bill “would provide annual budget increases of five percent plus inflation for cutting edge research at five federal research agencies: The NSF, the DOE Office of Science, the Department of Defense Science and Technology Programs, the National Institute of Standards and Technology Scientific and Technical Research Services, and the NASA Directorate.”
Overall, there are numerous bills that have been introduced in Congress that focus on science and innovation. GSA will continue to monitor the progression of these bills as they move through the legislative process.