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By Mitch Ambrose
The National Science Foundation would get a sweeping mandate to accelerate US technology development under a new bipartisan bill spearheaded by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Titled the Endless Frontier Act, it would redesignate NSF as the National Science and Technology Foundation (NSTF) to reflect the creation of a technology directorate empowered to employ funding mechanisms distinct from those used by the agency’s existing science programs. The bill’s other sponsors are Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) and Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI), who together with Schumer say the bill responds to the technological and economic challenge presented by China and other countries.
The directorate would support an assortment of technology centers, testbeds, and fellowships, with a total recommended budget rising to $35 billion within four years, dwarfing the agency’s current $8.3 billion topline. The bill also proposes to create a multi-billion-dollar technology hub program within the Commerce Department focused on catalyzing R&D partnerships in areas that are not already leading centers of innovation.
A primary mission of the new technology directorate would be to more quickly translate fundamental research advances into “processes and products that can help achieve national goals,” focusing on no more than 10 “key technology areas.” The areas would be determined by the agency director in consultation with an advisory board and revisited every four years, though the bill establishes an initial set of 10:
In addition to funding research at universities and nonprofit organizations, the directorate would be permitted to fund research at other federal agencies and support consortiums that include for-profit companies and entities based in “treaty allies and security partners” of the US. The bill also suggests the directorate model its operations on DARPA, which is known for giving its program managers considerable leeway to drive toward targeted R&D outcomes. By contrast, NSF traditionally uses community-based peer review of grant proposals to shape research directions.
The bill proposes the directorate receive $100 billion over five years, with an initial budget of $2 billion in fiscal year 2021, though such funding would still have to be allocated through the annual appropriations process. University technology centers would receive at least 35% of this budget, supporting activities such as “proof-of-concept development and prototyping.” Among other carveouts, at least 15% of the budget would be transferred to NSTF science directorates to “pursue basic questions about natural and physical phenomena that could enable advances in the key technology focus areas.”
Notably, the bill would prevent the technology directorate from receiving any funds if the budget appropriated for the rest of the agency declines year over year in inflation-adjusted terms. This provision may have been crafted to allay fears that the new technology directorate might interfere with NSF’s longstanding mission to support fundamental research.
Though it is unlikely the bill will advance far in the legislative process this year, it is among a series of bills pending in Congress that propose massive increases in federal support for science and technology. It also reflects a growing willingness among legislators to pursue what is effectively a form of “industrial policy,” which many lawmakers have previously been reluctant to embrace.
The author is Acting Director of FYI.
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