The science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives wants to more than double the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the next 5 years, devoting a sizeable chunk of the extra money to a new directorate that would accelerate the process of turning basic research into new technologies and products. But its version of a technology directorate would be much smaller and more in line with the way NSF traditionally funds research than the one already proposed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY), which emphasizes the economic and security threats posed by China.
The House bill, introduced today with bipartisan support, would lift NSF’s overall budget from the current $8.5 billion to $18.3 billion in 2026. In addition to growing the agency’s existing seven research and education directorates, the bill would create an eighth, called Science and Engineering Solutions (SES). Its budget would start at $1 billion in 2022 and grow to $5 billion by 2026.
Both the House legislation and Schumer’s Endless Frontier Act (EFA) see the new directorate as a way for NSF to do better in applying basic research findings to major societal challenges, from combating climate change and health inequities to strengthening economic and national security. But the House bill avoids Schumer’s focus on specific technologies such as artificial intelligence—sometimes called “industries of the future”—in favor of supporting all the disciplines NSF traditionally funds. The House proposal would also scale back the size of the new directorate, which under the EFA would grow to $35 billion by 2024. (Schumer said this week he expects several Senate committees to begin work next month on a revised version of his original legislation.)
“We were worried that this shiny new thing would overshadow” the rest of NSF, says a House science committee staffer. “But we are very supportive of [Schumer’s] desire to grow NSF.”
The House bill justifies rapid growth for NSF by emphasizing the “grand challenges” facing the country. “Framing the issue in terms of competition with China wasn’t attractive to the community,” says the staffer, referring to several rounds of meetings the committee held during the past year with academic and industry leaders. “They felt it was better to look at research opportunities not now being addressed” that could ultimately benefit all of society.
Statements on the bill from the committee’s top Democrat and Republican reflect that subtle difference in emphasis. “Our competitiveness with China and other nations drives much of the national discourse around innovation because our economic and national security depend on our leadership in science and technology,” says Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), chair of the committee. “[But] researchers and students are inspired by finding solutions, whether they be to scientific or societal challenges. In this bill, we seek to inspire.”
In contrast, Representative Frank Lucas (R–OK) highlighted the specific technologies that many legislators believe are needed to stay ahead of China. “This legislation prioritizes NSF funding for the industries of the future that will drive our continued economic growth, like quantum information sciences, artificial intelligence, supercomputing, cybersecurity, and advanced manufacturing.” He also flagged the importance of “research security,” that is, blocking other countries from improperly gaining access to federally funded research.
A host of existing science education and workforce training programs would grow by 50% over the 5-year term of the bill. Among those, it would boost the annual number of prestigious graduate research fellowships to from 2000 to 3000. The bill would also order up a decadal study of how to strengthen precollege science education and another on how to ensure that undergraduate science and engineering majors receive the training they need to fill high-tech jobs in industry after graduation.
The House bill goes to great lengths to prevent a funding tradeoff between the new directorate and the rest of NSF—a major concern of academic researchers who rely on NSF for support. It would both block the transfer of any money from NSF’s traditional programs into the new directorate as well as permitting the new directorate to function only if NSF’s existing programs have continued to grow.
But those protections aren’t absolute. Both the House and Senate bills would only authorize spending levels. A different committee actually appropriates money for the agency and is not required to heed the wishes of authorizers.
“We have made our intent as clear as possible,” the science committee staffer says. “But we have to stay vigilant.”