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April 2021 (Volume 30, Number 4)

FYI: Science Policy News from AIP

NSF Expansion Proposal Gains Steam in Senate

By Mitch Ambrose

The Senate is gearing up to consider legislation that may propose the most significant restructuring of the National Science Foundation since its establishment in 1950. Called the Endless Frontier Act, the version of the bill introduced last year proposed to rename NSF as the National Science and Technology Foundation and add a directorate to the agency charged with advancing a set of “key technology focus areas.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a lead sponsor of the bill, announced in February that it will be the “centerpiece” of a broader legislative package aimed at increasing US competitiveness with China. Schumer said he is aiming for the package to be bipartisan and plans for the Senate to vote on it this spring. He did not indicate if the Endless Frontier Act has been modified since last year but said it would propose to “surge resources” into NSF.

Last year’s version proposed that Congress allocate $100 billion to the new directorate over five years, well outstripping NSF’s current annual budget of $8.5 billion. The additional funds would be channeled toward an assortment of university-led research centers, test beds, and consortia, and a portion would be allocated through the agency’s existing directorates.

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Unlike NSF’s other directorates, the technology directorate would have authorities analogous to those used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which allows its program managers considerable leeway to drive toward targeted R&D outcomes. Typically, NSF has used external peer review of grant proposals to steer its programs.

The bill has received mixed reactions in science policy circles, with some observers arguing it could dilute NSF’s traditional focus on fundamental research and that it places an outsized emphasis on university-led research. Others, such as MIT President Rafael Reif, have defended the bill, noting it has provisions that protect NSF’s existing directorates and arguing that bold changes to the US research system are needed in the face of increasingly stiff technological competition from China.

Schumer has said his three goals for the overarching legislative package are to invest in US innovation and manufacturing capacity; strengthen alliances with NATO, Southeast Asia, and India; and push back on “predatory practices” by China that have led to job losses in the US. In addition, he has said it could include “emergency funding” to implement the recently enacted CHIPS for America Act, which authorized an array of semiconductor R&D initiatives and a subsidy program to support domestic chip production. He added it would also seek to alleviate the current acute shortage of chips worldwide, which is slowing production in the automotive industry, among other sectors.

“I want this bill to address America's short-term and long-term plan to protect the semiconductor supply chain and to keep us number one in things like AI, 5G, quantum computing, biomedical research, storage,” Schumer remarked.

His push comes as competing ideas are being circulated for how to supercharge the US research system. For instance, the final report of the congressionally chartered National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, released in March, proposes creating a National Technology Foundation rather than overhauling NSF.

Meanwhile, President Biden has ordered a review of national supply chains in critical technologies and voiced support for providing tens of billions to the US semiconductor industry. He has not yet commented on the Endless Frontier Act or the AI commission’s recommendations, though those proposals generally align with aspirations he voiced during his campaign to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on R&D in cutting-edge industries.

The author is Director of FYI.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine

April 2021 (Volume 30, Number 4)

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