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Biden backs new NSF tech directorate, but Senate balks

President Joe Biden today released a proposed 2022 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) that calls for a new technology directorate as part of a 20% overall increase for the agency, to $10.2 billion. But hours before in Congress, a group of Republican lawmakers temporarily blocked a bipartisan bill championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) that would have added the Senate’s backing to the idea.

Biden’s $6 trillion spending plan for all government agencies includes $1.2 billion in 2022 to help NSF move research more quickly into the marketplace. Charged with that goal, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan wants to give the agency a seventh research directorate, to be called Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP), and has proposed it be given an initial budget of $865 million in 2022.

Unlike NSF’s existing directorates, which have divisions focused on individual disciplines, TIP would be organized around activities aimed at getting more bang for NSF’s research and training bucks. For example, some $200 million would be invested in new regional innovation accelerators, a mechanism for helping parts of the country with relatively little research infrastructure compete better against high-tech corridors like Silicon Valley. The new directorate would absorb some $350 million in existing NSF programs aimed at helping scientists become more entrepreneurial. TIP would also operate a $50 million office aimed at promoting partnerships with industry, government, and the nonprofit sector.

The president’s budget proposes the new technology directorate receive a total of $50 billion over 10 years, including $31 billion in the first 5 years. Its budget would peak at $10.7 billion in 2026 before shrinking to $560 million in 2031.

Those overall numbers are in line with Schumer’s year-old plan to make NSF the spearpoint of a massive federal investment in research aimed at outinnovating China. Schumer’s original proposal to give the new NSF directorate $100 billion over 5 years, dubbed the Endless Frontier Act to honor the 75-year-old report that led to NSF’s creation in 1950, has been whittled down to $26 billion. And over the past few weeks, the legislation has ballooned into a $250 billion package that endorses $17 billion boosts for research at the Department of Energy and at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as well as hundreds of provisions aimed at addressing threats from China to U.S. economic and national security.

Schumer had hoped that a something-for-everybody legislative approach would push the bill across the finish line last night. But a handful of Republicans prevented backers of the bill from winning the 60 votes needed to end debate and pass the legislation, now called the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. This morning, Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–KY) agreed to delay a final vote until 8 June, the first day senators will be back from a Memorial Day recess.

Although the TIP directorate is the biggest new wrinkle for NSF in 2022, a large spending hike could result in the growth of several existing NSF programs. Under Biden’s proposal, NSF would spend 16% more on its education and workforce training programs, including boosting the annual number of its flagship graduate research fellowships from 2000 to 2500. Its support for a range of programs aimed at broadening participation in science and engineering would jump by 23%, to $440 million. A 40-year program to help 25 states at the bottom of a geographic listing of NSF funding would grow by 20%, to $240 million.

At the same time, the 2022 request tamps down on an initiative hatched by Panchanathan’s predecessor, France Córdova, called NSF’s 10 Big Ideas. The name was an umbrella for grouping investments ranging from exploring the polar regions to studying human-machine interactions. Together those topics would receive $565 million in 2022, down from $597 million in 2020.

If NSF gets the additional dollars, the agency projects it would make 20% more awards next year than in 2021. The average grant size would go up by nearly 15%, and success rates could inch up from 27% to 29%.