By Chris Unterberger and Chris Dade
Investment from the federal government in scientific and technological advancement is imperative for the US to continue to lead the world in innovation and progress. The Endless Frontier Act (EFA) proposed—and since passed—by the Senate is an earnest attempt to provide the necessary funding and organizational resources to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in its attempts to guide the rest of the world in the scientific enterprise well into the 21st century and beyond. Its thorough reorganization efforts and vast appropriations to the many scientific agencies within the federal government was ultimately rolled into a larger bill and has its fair share of excited proponents and avid opponents. The measure’s fate is now in the hands of the House which brings its own ideas for expansion and appropriation for the scientific community to the floor.
The appropriately named “Endless Frontier” Act comes from the 1945 report “Science, The Endless Frontier” by Vannevar Bush, the longtime former Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. The report was addressed to President Roosevelt about the future of scientific research in America following World War II. This report, and the office from which it was sent, served as the progenitor to the current structure of numerous agencies across the federal government including the NSF, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, the goal of the EFA is to restructure the current alignment of the national scientific endeavor.
The origin of the bill was focused on overhauling the NSF to better align its goals for the 21st century. The first drafts of the bill closely mirrored a proposal by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence that called for the establishment of a National Technology Foundation. Following a meeting by the Commission in 2019, then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took the idea further and introduced legislation to redesignate the NSF as the National Science and Technology Foundation. In a joint 2020 bid between the US House of Representatives and Senate, Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Senators Schumer and Todd Young (R-IN) presented their versions of the EFA to their respective chambers in the 116th Congress. As introduced, the legislation:
- Renamed the NSF the “National Science and Technology Foundation (NSTF)” to reflect the addition of a directorate focused on translating research advances into new technologies
- Required the new directorate to focus on no more than 10 “key technology areas” determined by the NSTF director and refreshed every four years in consultation with an advisory board
- Established an initial list of key technology areas, which include artificial intelligence (AI), high performance computing, quantum information systems, robotics, manufacturing, communications, cybersecurity, biotechnology, energy, materials science, and “natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention”
- Recommended Congress provide the new directorate $2 billion in fiscal year 2021, ramping up to $35 billion in fiscal years 2024 and 2025, with a total five-year budget of $100 billion and stipulated this budget would be apportioned between university technology centers, fellowships, testbeds, a lab-to-market program, and other NSTF directorates
- Prevented the technology directorate from receiving any funds if the budget allocated to the rest of the agency declined year over year in inflation-adjusted terms
- Directed the Commerce Department to create a program focused on catalyzing R&D partnerships in areas that are not already leading centers of innovation, with a recommend budget of $10 billion over five years
Both versions of the bill failed to make it out of committee before the end of the congressional session.
Following a change in the makeup of the upper house of Congress in 2021, a new version of the EFA was introduced to the 117th Congress. While large sections of the legislation remained unchanged from the 2020 version, notable changes included:
- The allocation of $52.7 billion for domestic semiconductor manufacturing and R&D and $1.5 billion for advanced communications R&D
- 71 billion fewer dollars allocated for the new NSF Directorate for Technology and Innovation over its first 5 years
- The allocation of $17 billion to the Department of Energy and $17.5 billion to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency over five years to support complementary R&D
An amended version of the bill was ultimately rolled into the US Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which successfully passed the Senate in early June 2021 with bipartisan support.
US Innovation and Competition Act
Before being passed by the Senate, the EFA was amended both in the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and on the Senate floor. Approved amendments to the legislative text resulted in a total budget decrease of $71 billion for the NSF technology directorate (of which some were reallocated to the Department of Energy) and alterations to the way funds were appropriated to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Additionally, language was added to enhance research security and integrity; fund research into precision agriculture, microgravity, and pandemics; and restrict cooperation with China on nuclear technology.
The final version of the EFA passed out of committee was combined with legislation from five other committees to compose the USICA legislative package. In addition to the original and amended components of the EFA, the USICA includes additional appropriations including:
- $80 billion for artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology R&D
- $1.5 billion for advanced wireless communication R&D
- $52 billion to initiate the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America Act which supports domestic manufacturing and R&D of semiconductors
- $1.5 billion for the “Countering Chinese Influence Fund” and a provision for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review foreign gifts to or contracts with higher education institutions
- Funding for primary and secondary STEM education initiatives
The USICA goes beyond simply funding more science and technology research. The legislation also includes language:
- Prohibiting any individual to knowingly submit a federal grant application that fails to disclose any outside compensation, including foreign compensation
- Directing the department of Health and Human Services to address possible intellectual property and genetic information theft
- Requiring the imposition of economic sanctions on Chinese entities that knowingly undermine U.S. cybersecurity or engage in the theft of trade secrets and against individuals responsible for serious human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang
- Prohibiting the use of TikTok on federal government devices
- Creating a “Buy American” procurement preference for all public infrastructure spending
Support and Opposition
Support and opposition come from both sides of the political spectrum. The four main proponents of the EFA—Sens. Schumer and Young and Reps. Khanna and Gallagher—are split equally between Democratic and Republican parties. Though the Senate vote on the USICA bill drew a majority of its support from all Democrats in the chamber, the bill was favored by nineteen Republican lawmakers as well.
That’s not to say there wasn’t partisan opposition. Thirty-one Republicans voted against the EFA, most of them citing excessive spending as their source of opposition. Meanwhile, independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont voted against the measure, his primary concern being the addition of an amendment that may benefit specific private companies, namely Blue Origin, the space exploration company led by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
The EFA, as part of the USICA passed by the Senate, also faces a treacherous landscape in the House, where it will have to compete with multiple bills addressing all or portions of the issues the USICA seeks to address. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) is critical of the bill’s demands on the NSF, arguing that it doesn’t continue to support the great progress that the Foundation has contributed in the past and instead supporting his own NSF For the Future Act. The For the Future Act creates additional requirements of the NSF including:
- expanding pre-K through 12 STEM education
- developing a network of partnerships to broaden STEM participation of historically underrepresented groups
- establishing a Research Security and Policy office
- awarding grants for supporting climate, food, and water systems and predicting extreme natural events.
Even the scientific community is split on its support of the bill. While a number of scientists testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in support of the bill, a small cohort of the scientific community opposes the concentration of funding to the public universities and chasing technological innovation for innovation’s sake. Few scientific societies have chosen to endorse the Senate version of the EFA, opting to instead support the above-detailed House version of appropriations to the NSF.
While public polling on federal scientific R&D funding is virtually non-existent, other aspects of the USICA enjoy broad public support. A December 2020 Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found almost 70% of Americans support blocking China from involvement in developing communications networks in the U.S., and a March 2021 Reuters-Ipsos poll found that 63% of Americans want U.S. government agencies to buy only American products, even if they cost more.
Recent polling by Gallup and Pew have found that a majority of Americans also want the U.S. to confront China on its human rights record and support sanctioning Chinese officials for human rights abuses. More generally, these polls have consistently found a major increase in the number of Americans who view China as an economic competitor if not outright enemy, with majorities supporting a tougher economic posture toward China.
The EFA’s path forward is not necessarily a straight line. Before becoming law, the USICA and the EFA provisions must be passed by the House, but its fate in the lower chamber is far from certain. The Science, Space, and Technology and Energy and Commerce Committees have signaled an interest in drafting their own legislation to address scientific research and development competitiveness. These alternative bills include the NSF for the Future Act and the Department of Energy Science for the Future Act. Each of these options is a step toward advancing scientific endeavors in the US, but would then need to be passed by the Senate. While it is evident lawmakers in both chambers are interested in supporting and advancing scientific research and development, determining the legislative strategy on how to do so remains an obstacle.
Nonetheless, the advancement of the EFA in the Senate and its consideration in the House are promising steps towards advancing the technological innovation capacity of the US for years to come. Now, we wait for the House to consider the Senate’s plan and pull the country further into the leading edge of the 21st century.