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FYI: Science Policy News from AIP

By Mitch Ambrose

In his first budget request to Congress, President Biden proposes to boost spending on research and development programs across non-defense agencies for fiscal year 2022. The request kicks off the annual appropriations cycle and is separate from the more than $200 billion in R&D spending that Biden has proposed as part of a special, eight-year infrastructure initiative called the American Jobs Plan. Both proposals include a focus on mitigating climate change and better positioning the US to compete globally in key technology sectors.

Within the budget request, Biden seeks a 35% increase in funding across the federal government for “clean energy innovation” as a first step toward quadrupling annual spending in the area over four years. The Department of Energy’s budget would increase 10% to $46 billion, with $700 million allocated to standing up a cross-agency ARPA–Climate that would work in concert with the extant ARPA–Energy. Among DOE’s other existing programs, the Office of Science budget would increase 5% to $7.4 billion in support of priorities such as climate science, novel materials for clean energy technologies, and advanced computing.

The focus on climate change extends to additional science agencies, such as NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s budget would jump about 25% to $6.9 billion, largely in support of improving earth observations, forecasting, and climate resilience efforts. NSF’s budget would increase 20% to $10.2 billion, of which $500 million of the new funds would go toward expanding research related to climate change and clean energy. NASA’s budget would increase 6% to $24.7 billion, with $250 million of the additional funds targeted to developing next-generation Earth observation satellites.

The budget also prioritizes research connected to selected strategic technology areas. For instance, Biden proposes creating a technology directorate in NSF that would work to accelerate progress in domains such as robotics, artificial intelligence, high performance computing, quantum information systems, advanced communications technologies, biotechnology, and cybersecurity. The research budget of the National Institute of Standards and Technology would increase 16% to $916 million in support of a similar set of priority areas.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure plan proposes an array of R&D initiatives that would complement or jumpstart proposals from the budget request. These include $50 billion for NSF, $14 billion for NIST, $35 billion for climate-related R&D, and $40 billion for upgrading research infrastructure across universities and federal laboratories. It also seeks $50 billion for the semiconductor manufacturing and R&D initiatives authorized in the CHIPS for America Act.

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Any legislation to fund Biden’s proposals will require some support from congressional Republicans unless Democrats circumvent the Senate filibuster with the maneuver they used to pass the $1.9 trillion pandemic response bill in March of this year. Republican leaders in the Senate have sharply objected to the scale of Biden’s spending ambitions, though they have not singled out the R&D-related provisions for criticism. Some of those provisions do have bipartisan backing, such as the semiconductor initiatives.

In justifying his proposals in recent speeches, Biden has frequently lamented that the share of federal spending on R&D has declined as a share of US gross domestic product in recent decades.

“We’re in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century,” Biden argued in his first address to Congress. “We will see more technological change in the next 10 years than we saw in the last 50 years. And we’re falling behind in that competition. Decades ago we used to invest 2% of our GDP on research and development. Today, we spend less than 1%.”

The author is Director of FYI.

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