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By Andrea Peterson
An R&D spending surge could be on the horizon, if senior Democrats and Republicans follow through with proposals to channel billions of dollars into fields they deem critical to national interests. The proposals circulating on Capitol Hill differ widely, but all cite either climate change or competition with China—or both—as justification for turbocharged funding.
Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) has said he hopes the bill will “start a bipartisan conversation about what we need to do to ensure America's lead in the technological revolution of the 21st century.” Commenting on the legislation, Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said she is pleased with its call to put science agencies on a sustained growth path and that she will look to incorporate ideas from the bill into bipartisan legislation Democrats hope to introduce later this year.
In the Senate, interest has begun to coalesce around the five “Industries of the Future” the White House has identified as key to US global competitiveness: artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information science (QIS), 5G telecommunications, advanced manufacturing, and synthetic biology.
In January, a bipartisan group of senators led by Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chair Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced the Industries of the Future Act, which would direct the White House to sketch out its vision for these areas. It would also require the administration to develop plans for doubling civilian agencies’ annual spending on QIS and AI over the next two years and for scaling up their investments across emerging technology areas to $10 billion annually by 2025.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has floated a separate proposal to create a new funding entity that would channel $100 billion over five years into “basic research” in areas such as AI, quantum computing, robotics, and 5G. Schumer has not yet introduced legislation for the proposal, but he reiterated his interest in the idea in a recent letter to the White House encouraging it to significantly increase funding for NSF and NIST in its latest budget request. The administration ultimately proposed steep cuts to both agencies, though it did propose ramping up spending on QIS and AI.
Proposals for bolstering R&D spending to address climate change have likewise proliferated in Congress. The House Republican bill is part of that party’s new effort to develop an innovation-centered climate policy, but a similar idea was articulated a year ago by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who called for doubling energy research funding over five years as part of a “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy.”
Although his proposal has not been embodied in legislation, from his position as chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for DOE, Alexander marshalled a funding boost for the current year that aligns with his doubling goal. However, he is retiring at the beginning of 2021, leaving the matter in his hands for only one more budget cycle.
With the election season now well underway, time is short to assemble a major legislative push this year. Efforts could continue into the next Congress, perhaps under significantly different circumstances should there be a new occupant of the White House. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have both included major energy innovation pushes in their platforms and could also prove receptive to the ideas in Congress.
The author is a science policy reporter for FYI.
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