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Bills would shake things up at the National Science Foundation.

Maria B. Barnes/National Science Foundation

U.S. lawmakers unveil bold $100 billion plan to remake NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) would get a sweeping remake—including a new name, a huge infusion of cash, and responsibility for maintaining U.S. global leadership in innovation—under bipartisan bills that have just been introduced in both houses of Congress.

Many scientific leaders are thrilled that the bills call for giving NSF an additional $100 billion over 5 years to carry out its new duties. But some worry the legislation, if enacted, could compromise NSF’s historical mission to explore the frontiers of knowledge without regard to possible commercial applications.

The Endless Frontiers Act (S. 3832) proposes a major reorganization of NSF, creating a technology directorate that, within 4 years, would grow to more than four times the size of the entire agency’s existing $8 billion budget. NSF would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation, and both the science and technology arms would be led by a deputy reporting to the NSF director. (NSF now has a single deputy director; the slot has been unfilled since 2014.) 

Many academic leaders are praising the legislation, which was spearheaded by the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer (NY), and co-sponsored by Senator Todd Young (R–IN). They see it as a huge vote of confidence in NSF, which this year is celebrating its 70th anniversary.

“These funds—which complement, not supplant, existing resources, an important condition—build on the NSF’s strengths and would fill gaps in our research enterprise, while allowing the foundation’s curiosity-driven research to continue to thrive,” says Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “These investments will help NSF catalyze innovation, support scientific leadership, and keep America globally competitive,” adds Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, a 65-member consortium of the nation’s leading research institutions.

But at least one former NSF director fears the bill would take the agency into dangerous territory by asking it to lead the government’s effort to develop new technologies. “I believe it would be a mistake for a technology directorate at NSF to serve as an offset to private funding for commercial innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Arden Bement, who led NSF from 2004 to 2010. “Federal funding for applied technology research and development should be need-based and channeled through mission agencies.”

Bement led one such agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, before former President George W. Bush asked him to move over to NSF. NSF already has programs to foster “early-stage” technology research and development, Bement says. He’s worried that Schumer’s bill, which authorizes the higher spending levels, could send a message to the congressional panels that actually appropriate the money that such activities are more important than NSF’s core mission of funding fundamental, curiosity-driven research.

“Investments in innovative technology research at federal research centers, universities, and not-for-profit institutes to meet federal agency mission requirements should be kept separate from NSF appropriations,” he warns.

The next superpower

The bill’s name, The Endless Frontiers Act, invokes the title of the seminal 1945 report by presidential science adviser Vannevar Bush that made the case for federal support of academic research and led to NSF’s creation in 1950. But the “Stay Ahead of China Act” might be a more accurate moniker.

“The legislation would provide the visible, focused, and sustained funding and approach that the U.S. urgently needs to meet the challenge posed by China’s increasing capabilities,” says Reif, one of several academic leaders whom Schumer has consulted over the past year in drafting the legislation.

Schumer, an East Coast liberal, and Young, a Midwestern conservative, occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. But both lawmakers see China’s rapid rise in technological innovation as a direct threat to U.S. national security and economic prosperity. They also think China has not been playing by the rules governing such global competition. “U.S. leadership is being eroded and challenged by foreign competitors, some of whom are stealing intellectual property and trade secrets,” says the preface to the bill, which doesn’t explicitly mention China.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, according to Schumer and Young. “The country that wins the race in key technologies—such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, advanced communications, and advanced manufacturing—will be the superpower of the future,” they write.

The bill calls for directing the biggest slice of the additional $100 billion that NSF would get to an unspecified number of university-based technology centers pursuing fundamental research in 10 key areas. The centers would work to develop prototypes of high-tech products and processes that companies could eventually bring to market.

The legislation also specifies additional investments in education and training activities, facilities to test out all manner of new technologies, and boosting the budgets of other NSF directorates carrying out basic research that would enhance development of those technologies, including a better understanding of their social and ethical implications. Another section of the bill would authorize the Department of Commerce to spend $10 billion on 10 to 15 regional technology hubs. Those hubs are designed to foster innovation in areas outside the country’s current tech hot spots.

First among equals

Passage of the legislation could significantly alter how NSF operates. In particular, agency officials would have the authority to adopt some of the management practices used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Department of Defense, known for its agility and focus on tangible, deadline-driven results. “The new [technology] directorate can run like DARPA if NSF wants it to,” says one university lobbyist familiar with Schumer’s thinking.

One provision would expand NSF’s ability to use outside experts hired for short stints. At DARPA, new program managers are expected to propose significant changes to the research portfolios of their predecessors, with the best new ideas receiving generous funding. In contrast, NSF’s core disciplinary programs change very little from year to year.

DARPA program managers also exercise much tighter control over the projects that they fund, including demanding monthly progress reports from investigators and canceling those projects that are less successful. NSF program officers historically take a much less aggressive approach to overseeing grantees, reflecting NSF’s philosophy that investigators should be free to change course based on unexpected findings, and that the payoff from any particular research project is often measured in decades.

“Culturally, it would be a huge shift,” says Joel Parriott, director of public policy for the American Astronomical Society and a former White House budget official whose portfolio included NSF. “It’s also not clear how the technology directorate could operate so differently from the rest of the agency.”

The new technology directorate would also hold an elevated status compared with NSF’s seven existing directorates. It would receive advice from a congressionally appointed board of outside experts, which would periodically update a list of priority technologies. In contrast, each of NSF’s current directorates have advisory committees of senior scientific leaders chosen by program officials. The presidentially appointed National Science Board would continue to exercise oversight of the entire foundation, although the legislation stipulates that it hold joint meetings with the new technology board at least once a year.

Is it time to act?

Schumer’s bill, and an identical version introduced in the House of Representatives last week by Representatives Ro Khanna (D–CA) and Mike Gallagher (R–WI), face an uphill path in a Congress consumed by the coronavirus pandemic and with scant time to legislate before the fall elections. And lawmakers will certainly tinker with the details as the legislation works its way through both bodies. But those caveats don’t diminish the bill’s significance for David Hart, a science policy maven at George Mason University.

“I think it has great symbolic value,” Hart says. “It’s a bipartisan statement that the country is underinvesting in key technologies that are important to our economic base. I’m not sold on doing all of this at NSF. But I think that we, as a nation, have to come up with new ways to fund technology. And this is certainly a breathtaking proposal.”

Former NSF director Neal Lane also thinks the bill sends an important message. “NSF is the only place in the federal government tasked with promoting the progress of science, and you have to be careful when you mess with that,” says Lane, who served as science adviser to former President Bill Clinton after leading NSF for 5 years. “But this bill makes clear that it’s time for bold action, and there’s not a moment to lose.”

Bement disagrees. “No organizational or federal research funding arrangement will amount to a hill of beans in an economy heading for recession,” he asserts. “I believe that any action on this bill should be tabled for another day.”