Legislation to reshape, expand – and rename – the National Science Foundation has been submitted in both the U.S. House and Senate. The proposal, which seems to have bipartisan support, calls for giving NSF $100 billion over five years and expanding its mission to include a technology directorate. Early response from the science community has been a mix of enthusiasm for added resources and worry over shifting NSF’s emphasis away from curiosity-driven basic science to more policy-driven technology development.
Given the scope of the plan and the current mobilization of government to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems unlikely there will be fast action on the bill. The initiative is co-sponsored by Democrat Chuck Schumer (NY) and Republican Todd Young (IN) in the Senate. Early coverage of the proposed changed is in Science Magazine. (UPDATE: Early reaction from four prominent HPC leaders is presented at the end of the article.)
Here’s a brief excerpt from the Science report, written by Jeffrey Mervis:
“The Endless Frontiers Act (S. 3832) proposes a major reorganization of NSF, creating a technology directorate that, within 4 years, would grow to more than four times the size of the entire agency’s existing $8 billion budget. NSF would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation, and both the science and technology arms would be led by a deputy reporting to the NSF director. (NSF now has a single director; the deputy director slot has been unfilled since 2014.) Many academic leaders are praising the legislation, which was spearheaded by the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer (NY), and co-sponsored by Senator Todd Young (R–IN). They see it as a huge vote of confidence in NSF, which this year is celebrating its 70th anniversary.
“These funds—which complement, not supplant, existing resources, an important condition—build on the NSF’s strengths and would fill gaps in our research enterprise, while allowing the foundation’s curiosity-driven research to continue to thrive,” says Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “These investments will help NSF catalyze innovation, support scientific leadership, and keep America globally competitive,” adds Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, a 65-member consortium of the nation’s leading research institutions.
But at least one former NSF director fears the bill would take the agency into dangerous territory by asking it to lead the government’s effort to develop new technologies. “I believe it would be a mistake for a technology directorate at NSF to serve as an offset to private funding for commercial innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Arden Bement, who led NSF from 2004 to 2010. “Federal funding for applied technology research and development should be need-based and channeled through mission agencies.”
The new directorate’s efforts would concentrate on a periodically updated list of no more than 10 “key technology focus areas,” with an initial list of the following 10:
- artificial intelligence and machine learning
- high performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware
- quantum computing and information systems
- robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing
- natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention
- advanced communications technology
- biotechnology, genomics, and synthetic biology
- cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies
- advanced energy
- materials science, engineering, and exploration relevant to the other key technology focus areas
The bill recommends the directorate’s budget rise from $2 billion in fiscal year 2021 to $35 billion in fiscal years 2024 and 2025, with a “hold harmless” provision mandating it cannot receive any funds in a given fiscal year if the budget for the rest of NSF declines. NSF’s annual budget is currently about $8 billion. Schumer and Young’s bill would also establish a Regional Technology Hub Program administered by the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology that would provide grants to consortia working in specified technology areas. The legislation would recommend a total budget of $10 billion for the program covering fiscal years 2021 through 2025. Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) are expected to introduce the bill in the House.
There’s a lot to unpack here. While the HPC community will need time to absorb the full proposal, four prominent HPC community members offered early thoughts.
Thomas Sterling, professor and director of AI Computing Systems Laboratory (AICSL), Indiana University, Bloomington:
“The strategic vision proposed to update the National Science Foundation after seven decades of establishing science as an American imperative is enlightened and timely. A new National Science and Technology Foundation acknowledges the complex interrelationships between science goals and discoveries on the one hand and technology advancements and innovations on the other. In particular the NSF has proven ambivalent about sponsoring projects in the domain of HPC systems as it has had a less than inspired criteria on judging curiosity-driven research meriting support. Technology innovation has been excluded by some at NSF as meriting support.
“In HPC technology, confusion exists about the role of industry providing next generation products and the need for future generation concepts creation through research. Although not politically fashionable, the review system for proposed research is highly constraining. The ability to recognize value of imaginative but risky ideas in HPC is treated with limited enthusiasm if not disdain. Adding “Technology” to its charter and mandate will force a new competitive culture for HPC systems. Perhaps, the NSTF will elevate systems research in hardware as well as software. Most importantly, mission-critical agencies are not responsible, nor have programs for creativity beyond the near-term in HPC systems. Recent initiatives from DARPA, DOE, IARPA, and NIH have delivered responsible incremental advances but are largely ignoring revolutionary ideas and directions which is the only way that the US will be able to leap-frog the threatening international competition.
“For these reasons, expanding beyond the legacy traditions of NSF to release the imagination and creativity of the nation’s inspired technology research may catalyze a renaissance in US leadership in HPC and systems.”
Dan Stanzione, executive director and associate VP for research, the Texas Advanced Computing Center, UT Austin:
“We’re still evaluating the details of the proposed Legislation. At TACC, we strongly support any efforts to strengthen the National Science Foundation, and to strengthen the US investments in key strategic technologies, particularly when other nations are ramping up their corresponding investments. We do believe that it is critically important that any new legislation protects NSF’s critical role in funding basic research. NSF’s role in basic research is unique among federal agencies, and provides foundational discoveries key to creating future industries and improve the quality of life.”
Rick Stevens, associate laboratory director for computing, environment and life sciences, Argonne National Laboratory:
“I think improving the funding prospects for NSF basic science mission is very important. Expanding the basic science funding support to universities is a good idea, including expanding engineering research and research infrastructure. I think the government mission agencies are likely the better mechanism for applied science and technology research as they have government mission needs that serve as drivers and can shape priority investments for technology to meet those needs. They are also better staffed and organized to manage technology development projects through national labs and contracts with industry.
“I think it is also important to increase the scale and sustainability of private sector investments in advanced technology development via tax policy and other means such as intelligent government procurements that push the envelope. Increase overall government spending on science and technology is important and making those increases sustainable is even more important as the research community needs that stability to work on long-term problems.”
Jack Dongarra, Innovative Computing Laboratory, University of Tennessee:
“This looks like a great opportunity for NS(T)F to expand its scope. Traditionally NSF was all about the science. Once the academic researcher describing the science was submitted as a paper the extended development was stopped. This may allow NSTF to extend the development into more useful harden technology that can be used. Since government budgets are a zero-sum game this may affect other agencies in an adverse fashion.”
Link to Science Magazine’s coverage: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/us-lawmakers-unveil-bold-100-billion-plan-remake-nsf