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Legislators this week began to debate the National Science Foundation’s future.

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First round of hearings by Congress back a more muscular NSF

The U.S. Congress this week got its first chance to weigh in on proposals to expand the mission and massively boost the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the initial response was positive.

During three committee hearings, most legislators seemed to like the idea, although some expressed reservations about its size and scope—up to $100 billion over 5 years, with half going to a new technology directorate. And everybody wanted more details.

Supporters said a budget boost at the $8.5 billion agency would reverse years of underfunding and help the country develop the emerging technologies needed to outinnovate China and other economic competitors. Opponents questioned whether NSF could handle such rapid growth and whether an agency that mostly funds academic research is also the best home for efforts to commercialize those discoveries. Some legislators worried that too much of that research could wind up in the hands of China because of lax safeguards against espionage.

Speaking to spending panels in the Senate and the House of Representatives on Tuesday and Wednesday, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan made the case for President Joe Biden’s request for a 20% boost in NSF’s 2022 budget as a first step in that buildup. In a separate pitch before the Senate commerce and science committee, which authorizes NSF programs, a panel of academic and industry leaders gave a ringing endorsement to a sweeping expansion at NSF proposed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY).

However, legislators were unable to dive into the details of those proposals. Biden has yet to release a full budget request for the 2022 fiscal year that starts on 1 October, including a breakdown of spending at NSF, although he has endorsed the idea of $50 billion over 8 years for the new technology directorate. Schumer is still tweaking a bipartisan bill that he introduced a year ago, called the Endless Frontier Act, after eliminating several provisions that academic leaders opposed.

Even so, the hearings reflected how much the political winds have shifted now that Democrats control both chambers of Congress and Biden is in the White House. After 3 years of defending President Donald Trump’s efforts to slash NSF’s budget, his former science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier, now an emeritus professor at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, reversed course and told legislators the agency has been “woefully underfunded for decades.” Schumer’s proposal, he told members of the Senate science committee, would allow NSF “to make big bets on big ideas.”

Likewise, Panchanathan, whom Trump picked in 2019 to lead NSF, felt free to express support for proposed House legislation that would authorize Congress to more than double NSF’s budget over the next 5 years. He told Senate appropriators that NSF would use the money to make more grants and expand their size and duration. Specifically, he said, the average grant would grow from $200,000 to $300,000 and from 3 years to 4 or 5 years. The percentage of submitted proposals accepted by the agency would rise from about 20% to 30% or higher, allowing NSF to fund billions of dollars of ideas that under current funding constraints are deemed worthy of support but rejected.

“It’s only 50% of what we could fund,” Panchanathan told the counterpart House spending panel the next day. “And we don’t want to leave those ideas on the floor because they might be picked up by our competitors.”

More funding would be even better, he added. “A quadrupling of funding is just barely enough for us to implement all of the ideas that have been unleashed to stay ahead of the competition,” he said.

On the frontier

The Senate hearing on the Endless Frontier Act gave proponents a chance to blunt criticism that NSF doesn’t know how to do what the legislation seeks, namely, to apply its world-class research to help speed up a host of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and advanced communications, to enhance economic growth and national security.

“The new technology needs to move through several stages,” explained veteran science policy analyst William Bonvillian of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. NSF’s existing seven directorates would continue to do “early-stage, fundamental research,” he said, and the new directorate would build on those ideas. A network of new university technology centers would then take steps to commercialize the technologies, which include test beds for working up prototypes and then regional hubs to coordinate workforce training and manufacturing and marketing efforts.

Panchanathan said the new directorate wouldn’t necessarily create and manage its own sets of programs. Rather, he said it would be a “cross-cut directorate” that would make sure NSF was getting the most from a suite of existing activities aimed at fostering “use-inspired research.” Those programs include training scientists to be entrepreneurs, supporting technology startup companies, and helping states that now receive relatively little NSF funding do better in competing with powerhouses such as California, Maryland, and Massachusetts.

Legislators in states with national laboratories funded by the Department of Energy wondered why they weren’t part of the picture. “I think we can all agree that whatever investment we make should include something for our national labs,” said the chair of the science panel, Senator Maria Cantwell (D–WA).

Several Republicans expressed deep concern about the size of the proposed investment and challenged proponents to quantify the need for additional investments in research. “How much should the federal government spend on R&D? Is it $100 billion, or $250 billion, or why not $1 trillion?” asked Senator Mike Lee (R–UT). “And is there a point at which our policy becomes counterproductive?”

Droegemeier didn’t have a ready answer. “We don’t have a science of science policy … that would tell us what we really need to be spending,” he admitted. Because of existing budget constraints, “NSF is unable to fund $4 billion in good proposals [every year], so that’s one metric. But I don’t honestly know what the right number is.”

Lee and several other Republicans implied that any number would be too large unless NSF and the rest of the federal government could guarantee that the fruits of such research didn’t fall into the hands of China. “This is not just about innovation,” said Senator Todd Young (IN), a committee member and the sole Republican co-sponsor to date of the Endless Frontier Act. “This is about competing with the Chinese Communist Party.”

At all three hearings, Republicans pushed for assurances that NSF could ferret out any attempted thefts of intellectual property or economic espionage, including programs by the Chinese government to recruit top U.S. scientists with NSF funding. Panchanathan pointed to a new senior manager at NSF for research security, and to the agency’s inspector general, which investigates waste, fraud, and abuse of federal funds. Droegemeier cited a nonbinding presidential memo issued days before Biden took office spelling out key steps that should take to adhere to “American values” in protecting the integrity of federally funded research.

The Endless Frontier Act “is still being worked on,” Cantwell noted, suggesting it could well include additional language relating to research security or funding activities at other agencies. And she was equivocal about what spending level for NSF she would support. Referring to 2010 and 2017 laws containing smaller but still substantial authorized increases that were never funded, she said the committee’s role is “to bolster the confidence of our appropriations allies that these are the right levels of investment.”