On April 21, 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a revised version of the Endless Frontier Act (EFA)—a bill that would create a technology-focused directorate within the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Todd Young (R-IN), Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), and Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) introduced the bill in their respective chambers. Cosponsors of the bipartisan, bicameral legislation include Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Susan Collins (R-ME), Chris Coons (D-DE), Rob Portman (R-OH), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Gary Peters (D-MI), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Steve Daines (R-MT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Mitt Romney (R-UT), and Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Representatives Susan Wild (D-PA), Mike Turner (R-OH), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ).
According to an accompanying press release, the EFA (S.1260) would “dramatically increase U.S. investment and leadership in science and [technology] innovation, strengthen economic and national security and keep the U.S. strategically competitive with China and other countries.” The legislation proposes expanding NSF by establishing a new Technology and Innovation Directorate within NSF “to advance research and development in 10 key technology focus areas, including artificial intelligence, semiconductors, quantum computing, advanced communications, biotechnology, and advanced energy.” The updated bill no longer proposes changing NSF’s name to National Science and Technology Foundation or appointing separate Deputy Directors for the Science and Technology wings at the science agency, as was outlined in the previous version of the bill introduced last year. Under the current proposal, the management structure of the new directorate would be identical to the existing directorates at NSF.
The new directorate would receive $100 billion over five years to invest in basic and advanced research, commercialization, and education and training programs in technology areas “critical to national leadership.” The Directorate would be authorized to increase research spending at universities, with a particular focus on historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges or universities, other minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and institutions that participate in the NSF EPSCoR program. In addition to carrying out its own activities, the new directorate could partner with other directorates within NSF as well as other federal research entities, including the Department of Energy, National Labs across the country, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology.
An additional $10 billion would be set aside for the Department of Commerce to establish at least 10 regional technology hubs across the country to position these regions “as global centers for the research, development, entrepreneurship, and manufacturing of new key technologies.” The bill would also invest $2.4 billion to “enhance and expand” the Manufacturing USA network to ensure global leadership in the manufacturing of key technologies.
Similar proposals to expand NSF have been put forward by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and President Biden. Under his infrastructure plan, Biden has proposed an additional $50 billion in funding for NSF over 8 years, with most of that funding directed towards creating a new technology-focused directorate “that will collaborate with and build on existing programs across the government.” The House Science Committee has proposed a relatively modest increase for NSF, more than doubling its budget to $18.3 billion over 5 years, of which $5 billion would go to a new Science and Engineering Solutions Directorate. Although both the EFA and House bill focus on applying basic research findings to societal problems, the House bill does not identify any technology focus areas.
Recent congressional hearings tackled the subject of expanding NSF’s mission and budget. Most legislators seemed receptive to the idea in general but wanted more details. Many of them support boosting funding for NSF, which has been underfunded for years, particularly now given the increasing competition US faces from other countries. However, some questioned whether an agency that mostly funds academic research could also adequately support commercialization and handle such rapid growth in funding.
Former Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kelvin Droegemeier, who in the recent past defended President’s Trump’s requests to cut NSF budget, told lawmakers that NSF was “woefully underfunded for decades” and that the EFA would allow the agency “to make big bets on big ideas.” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan expressed support for the House bill, adding that the agency would use the increased funding to grow the average grant from $200,000 to $300,000 and expand the percentage of submitted proposals accepted by the agency from about 20 percent to 30 percent or higher. This would allow NSF to invest billions in competitive proposals that are rejected under current budget constraints, he argued. “And we don’t want to leave those ideas on the floor because they might be picked up by our competitors.”
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