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Increasing federal investment in advanced manufacturing, including robots that can assemble complex devices, is one goal of new Senate legislation.

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Senate bill would boost spending on Trump administration’s research priorities

For 3 years, President Donald Trump has proposed large cuts to fundamental research at several federal agencies, and few observers expect that to change when he submits his 2021 budget request to Congress next month. But this week, a bipartisan group of senators asked the Trump administration to pump up funding for a handful of technologies they believe will drive future U.S. economic growth. And the top White House technology officer thinks it’s a great idea.

The chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Senator Roger Wicker (R–MS), and colleagues from both parties have proposed doubling federal spending by 2022 on research in artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum information science, two hot fields. Their bill, S. 3191, also wants the government to be spending $10 billion by 2025 on research in those fields and three others—advanced manufacturing, wireless communications, and synthetic biology—that together make up what the legislation labels “industries of the future.”

That number pales in comparison to a 5-year, $100 billion investment proposed last fall by Senator Charles Schumer (D–NY), who leads the Senate Democrats. Still, it’s an impressive amount for a fiscally conservative legislator like Wicker to be seeking. And the ask is made easier by the administration’s quick endorsement.

“I’m pleased to see the Industries of the Future Act introduced by Senators Wicker, Gardner, Peters, and Baldwin,” Michael Kratsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, said Wednesday at a committee hearing on the bill, citing co-sponsors Cory Gardner (R–CO), Gary Peters (D–MI), and Tammy Baldwin (D–WI). “Importantly, the bill recognizes that the industries of the future are interconnected and builds upon work already underway.”

Asked after the hearing how he chose these topics, Wicker said the list was “based on the best advice we could get.” As examples, an aide mentioned input from academic scientists and research officials in the Trump administration. And although the bill doesn’t say how much the government is now spending in those fields, Wicker said the experts suggested a doubling because it was “an achievable goal that would get us somewhere.”

Of course, advice from scientists isn’t the only factor in setting policy. The Senate is now preoccupied with impeachment proceedings, and there’s little room on its legislative calendar this year to bring any free-standing bill to the floor for a vote. But Wicker is hopeful that something could happen this year because the legislation “is consistent with the priorities identified by this administration,” with AI and quantum science arguably holding the top two spots.

The bill does not spell out how the administration should ramp up its efforts. Instead, it specifically asks the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to propose legislation that would flesh out how to spend the largess in 2022 and beyond.

OSTP would receive input from a council made up of federal officials drawn from existing interagency panels overseeing research in these areas. One such group, in quantum science, was created as a result of legislation Congress passed in December 2018 that goes into great detail on how specific agencies should beef up their research portfolios.

The administration’s list of research priorities does not include developing new energy and environmental technologies to address climate change, some observers note. Nor does it address health care and food production, megaissues that will require similarly new approaches to sustain U.S. economic growth.

Why not? One reason might be that the bill’s missing fields are largely funded by agencies that fall under the jurisdiction of Senate committees other than Wicker’s. By limiting the bill to fields overseen by his committee, Wicker has the ability to move the legislation without first consulting with other Senate panels. It’s likely that Wicker and his colleagues also chose fields they knew the administration favored, wrapped in broader themes that they hoped would also resonate.

“America has been at the forefront of inventing new industries,” says Peters, who teamed up with Gardner in 2016 to spearhead passage of a bill that authorizes increased research spending at several federal agencies. “This legislation is important to maintaining U.S. leadership, growing our economy, and protecting our national security.”