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Funding authorized for the Department of Energy could support its network of laboratories, which includes Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Mark Lopez Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr

Bills to give NSF massive spending boost advance in Senate and House, but hurdles remain

Two key congressional committees this week endorsed the idea of a sizable spending increase for the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). Separate pieces of legislation—one approved by a Senate panel, the other by a committee of the House of Representatives—would more than double NSF’s budget over 5 years as part of a broader push to outinnovate China and the rest of the world through a massive federal investment in research.

But research advocates aren’t popping any corks yet. The two votes represent an important step in a 20-year push to bring the $8.5-billion-a-year NSF closer to parity with the $43 billion National Institutes of Health. However, legislators must still reconcile competing visions of NSF’s role in maintaining U.S. global leadership in science in order for some version of either bill to become law. And then they would have to convince their colleagues to appropriate at least some portion of the additional money Congress has authorized.

“Getting [the bills] out of committee is great news,” says one lobbyist for higher education. “But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”

On 12 May, the Senate commerce and science committee took up the Endless Frontier Act (EFA) championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY). Schumer’s original bill, introduced 1 year ago with Senator Todd Young (R–IN) and other bipartisan co-sponsors, would have allocated $100 billion to a new technology directorate at NSF that would accelerate development of 10 key technologies, including artificial intelligence, advanced materials, and quantum information science.

The committee made significant changes to the bill (S.1260) during a daylong business meeting. In wading through more than 50 amendments, members voted to shrink the size of the new NSF directorate and beef up the agency’s existing programs, add the Department of Energy (DOE) to the funding mix, and require both agencies to ensure research institutions in more states benefit from any additional federal investment in research.

At the same time, the Senate panel—which has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans—preserved Schumer’s overall concept of a new technology directorate at NSF. It would oversee programs to create university technology and innovation centers that work closely with industry, fund test beds for promising technologies, promote entrepreneurship at campuses across the country, and invest heavily in the next generation of technologists.

Overall, the revised EFA, which was approved 24 to four, envisions an impressive rate of growth for NSF’s budget. By 2026, NSF would be authorized to receive $13 billion in annual spending—64% more than current budget—for its traditional activities, with an additional $9.3 billion that year for the new directorate. The bill would authorize congressional spending panels to give a total of $81 billion to NSF over 5 years, with $54.4 billion going to its ongoing programs and $26.6 billion to the new directorate. (But appropriators can provide less than authorized amounts, and often do.)

Make room for DOE

The thorniest issues addressed during the Senate panel’s 6-hour business meeting were how large to make the new NSF directorate, and whether the agency deserved star billing in the federal research firmament. Although the research community welcomed the additional funding for the 71-year-old agency, some feared the new directorate might overwhelm NSF and undermine its core mission to support fundamental research across all disciplines without regard to how quickly—or even whether—that research fuels economic growth and contributes to national security. Some legislators, meanwhile, fretted that a heftier NSF might duplicate research funded by other federal agencies and wondered whether agency officials could ensure none of the funding would unintentionally end up in the hands of U.S. competitors, notably China.

The duplication and security issues were of special concern to a bipartisan group of lawmakers who worried about how beefing up NSF might affect DOE’s network of 17 national laboratories and argued that DOE should also get additional resources. “The National Science Foundation is an important part of the innovation ecosystem and provides universities with vital resources to conduct basic science,” they wrote in an 11 May letter to Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–KY). But they also emphasized that DOE and its laboratories “have an established role, secure methods of research, and R&D capabilities that are—and should continue to be—unmatched in the United States and around the world. DOE and its labs are also better placed and experienced to prevent the theft of defense and other commercial technologies and know-how by competitors, including China.”

The DOE advocates won a victory during the Senate panel’s deliberation; members voted 23 to five to approve an amendment by Senator Ben Ray Luján (D–NM) that diverted some of the money initially proposed for the new NSF directorate to DOE instead. As a result, the bill now authorizes $16.9 billion in additional funding for DOE over 5 years, compared with $26.6 billion for the technology directorate. (The additional spending at DOE would start at $1 billion in 2022 and grow to $5.5 billion by 2026.)

The compromise addresses three major criticisms of the original EFA, says Leland Cogliani, a lobbyist for Lewis-Burke Associates who tracks energy issues. “Republicans didn’t want to grow the overall size of the bill,” says Cogliani, a former Senate appropriations staffer. “They also didn’t want to harm NSF core programs. And they wanted to achieve some degree of parity between DOE and NSF.”

Young, who was the EFA’s chief advocate during the committee markup, railed against the idea of shifting funds to DOE. “This is a poison pill,” he said. “It would underfund the technology directorate and you’d lose the whole crowding-in effect” of partnering with other federal agencies and the private sector. “It also seems somewhat parochial.”

Those supporting the DOE funding included the committee’s chair, Senator Maria Cantwell (D–WA), who presented a separate package of amendments, written jointly with the panel’s top Republican, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, that also was adopted by the full committee.

“While I applaud the notion of a technology directorate, there are lots of questions about what it means for NSF,” Cantwell said in an opening statement that signaled her differences with Schumer and Young. “Senator Wicker and I have helped to address the need to invest heavily in our national laboratories. … So I don’t fear the creation of a new directorate.”

Given the panel’s overwhelming support for DOE’s role, observers say Schumer faces an uphill battle if he continues to make the case that NSF alone is the best agency for turning research discoveries into new industries and jobs.

Spread the wealth

The Senate committee also tweaked the EFA to ensure a better geographic distribution of federal research dollars. It’s an issue that has long rankled some lawmakers; large research institutions located in a relatively small number of states tend to dominate the competition for federal grants, leaving institutions in other states—often poorer and more rural—with crumbs. NSF first tackled that geographic imbalance in 1980 when it launched the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCOR), which earmarks small amounts of money to have-not states so their researchers might do better in competing against peers from research-intensive universities and institutions located in tech hotbeds such as Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Massachusetts. That program—where the “E” now stands for “established”— serves 24 states whose eligibility is based on receiving less than 0.75% of total NSF funding. (By comparison, the top three states—California, New York, and Massachusetts—receive a combined 27% of the overall NSF pot, with California alone garnering 13%.)

The revised EFA would require all NSF and DOE programs funded under the bill—including the new NSF tech directorate—to allocate 20% to grantees from those EPSCOR states. It also adds geography to the traditional categories used to define the diversity of grantees, which include race, ethnicity, gender, and disability status. Tracking geographic diversity would part of the portfolio of NSF’s chief diversity officer—a new position created by the bill.

Wicker’s support for EFA hinged on making sure states like Mississippi do better than in the past when competing for NSF grants. And he seems happy with the latest version. “This amendment is a game changer for geographic diversity,” Wicker said at the onset of the markup. “It is one of the changes that I am most excited about.”

Smooth sailing in House

Unlike in the Senate, the House science committee’s markup of its bill (H.2225) to bulk up NSF proceeded the next day without a hitch. There was unanimous agreement to boost NSF’s overall budget by 116% over 5 years, to $18.3 billion in 2026. Funding for its traditional programs would rise to $13.2 billion, essentially the same level as in the Senate bill. However, the new NSF directorate—called Science and Engineering Solutions in the House bill—would be significantly smaller than that envisioned by the Senate. It would start at $1 billion in 2022 and grow to $5.1 billion in 2026.

A big reason for the greater harmony within the House panel is that the legislation is limited to reauthorizing NSF programs and providing guidance to the agency. The Senate bill, in contrast, includes a bevy of other provisions, including a full reauthorization of programs at NASA. And NSF’s stellar reputation made it easier for Democrats and Republicans in the House to agree on how to tweak the agency.

“Our top priority is to first do no harm,” said Representative Haley Stevens (D–MI), chair of the House committee’s research panel, in her opening statement at a 90-minute business meeting. “Our capacity to innovate will dry up if we choke off the flow of fundamental research” that is the core mission of NSF, she added.

Accomplishing that goal means supporting NSF to the hilt, added Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), who chairs the full committee. “This bill pushes NSF to be its own best self, not an entirely new agency,” she said. Such trust is warranted, she noted, because “NSF has the capacity [to grow rapidly] and a track record of excellence.”

The committee’s top Republican, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, was equally effusive in his praise of NSF. “This bill lets NSF grow and evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st century while preserving what makes NSF great,” he said. His confidence in NSF’s ability to manage the largesse, he added, sold him and other fiscally conservative Republicans on the idea of giving it a big spending hike.

“The new directorate will advance fundamental research without duplication,” Lucas asserted. “And the funding path is practical, sustainable, and in balance with the rest of the foundation.”

Many moving parts

Observers expect the House reauthorization bill, dubbed the NSF for the Future Act, to face minimal obstacles in moving through the full body. But its ultimate fate is uncertain.

The fact that the top numbers for NSF in the House legislation are close to those in the Senate proposal should make it easier for the two bodies to reconcile their bills once each bill is passed. But the Senate’s EFA does much more than provide policy guidance to NSF. Schumer regards it as the primary legislative vehicle for developing a national strategy to deal with China’s ascendent economic and military strength. Those elements, which would require major changes in U.S. tax, trade, and immigration policies, are sure to prove contentious as the bill moves ahead in the Senate. In addition, other Senate panels have already taken up related bills that their proponents hope to attach to the EFA when it goes to the floor, further raising the bar for passage. Schumer said yesterday he hopes to begin debate on the bill next week and hold a vote by the end of the month.

All those moving parts are likely to shape what happens to NSF—and its new directorate. And the White House will also be an important player. President Joe Biden has expressed support for investing $50 billion over several years in a technology directorate at NSF. But his skeletal 2022 budget request simply asks for a 20% boost at NSF, to $10.2 billion, without specifying any base funding for the directorate.

It is not yet clear when the House and Senate will complete work on their bills. But few expect a final vote—if it happens at all—before much later this year.