Senate Debate on Bill to Remake NSF – the Endless Frontier Act – Begins

By John Russell

May 18, 2021

The U.S. Senate today opened floor debate on the Endless Frontier Act which seeks to remake and expand the National Science Foundation by creating a technology directorate and shifting a portion of NSF’s focus to technology development rather than basic research. What began as a $100 billion expansion plan has been dramatically slimmed down in committee and what will eventually emerge from the debate is unclear.

The Endless Frontier Act, co-sponsored by Democrat Chuck Schumer (NY) and Republican Todd Young (IN), had a fair amount of early bipartisan support, but wrangling over the size of budget increase and over the right role for the Department of Energy in U.S. science development have reshaped the bill now being discussed. In the House of Representatives, another bill, the NSF for the Future Act, offers a smaller-scaled expansion for NSF and also includes creation of a Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions.

While it is still early in the process, there seems to be momentum for some kind of overhaul of the U.S. government’s approach to science research with an eye towards targeting specific topics for research and increasing applied technology. The NSF has traditionally been charged mainly with pursing basic research. DOE pursues both basic and applied research but closely linked with its specific mission. (See earlier HPCwire coverage)

In remarks on the Senate floor today, Schumer said:

“It is my intention to have an open, bipartisan amendment process. The Endless Frontier Act already includes more than twenty bipartisan amendments from the Commerce Committee, under the leadership of Senator Cantwell and Ranking Member Wicker, and I expect we’ll consider several more here on the floor of the Senate.

“Later today, I will file a substitute amendment that pulls together more bipartisan legislation from across Senate Committees into our comprehensive bill that we are now calling the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act.

[UPDATE: Brief description of the just filed U.S. Innovation and Competition Act is at the end of the article]

“Restoring America’s competitive edge should unite Senators from both sides of the aisle. The foundation of the past century of American prosperity has been our leadership in science, technology and innovation. If we are going to win the next century, the United States needs to be the one discovering the next groundbreaking technologies. We had that opportunity, for instance, with tech, and we lead the world because of early investments in NSF and DARPA. We have the opportunity now to set our country on a path to out-innovate, out-produce, and out-compete the world in emerging industries of the 21st Century—with profound consequences for our economic and national security.

“If we don’t lead in science and innovation, we will fall way behind.” 

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) has been regularly tracking maneuvering around the bills: Here’s a quick summary of the efforts to date from AIP:

  • Endless Frontier Act. “The committee retained the bill’s centerpiece proposal for creating a technology directorate in the National Science Foundation. However, it cut the target five-year budget for the directorate from $100 billion to $29 billion, in part through an amendment by Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) that added $17 billion for the Department of Energy to conduct complementary R&D. The bill’s lead Republican sponsor, Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), called the amendment a “poison pill” and declared he would seek to restore funding for the NSF directorate on the Senate floor. Agencies beyond NSF and DOE may also factor into the floor debate over the bill. For instance, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has argued the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is better suited than NSF to pursue the bill’s goals, asserting the agency has a stronger record on research security.”
  • NSF for the Future Act. “At a meeting last week, the House Research and Technology Subcommittee unanimously approved the NSF for the Future Act, which recommends Congress roughly double the National Science Foundation’s budget over five years in part through the addition of a directorate focused on “societal challenges.” Prior to the meeting, the lead House sponsor of the Endless Frontier Act, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), had said he was “optimistic” the panel would align its legislation with his, but the committee continued to pursue its own course. Subcommittee Chair Haley Stevens (D-MI) stressed the panel’s caution in expanding NSF’s mission, remarking, “While I am excited about the prospect of unleashing the agency to do more of what it does best and to take on new challenges, I feel strongly that our top priority should be to do no harm.” Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) criticized the Endless Frontier Act as offering an unsustainable vision for NSF and attracting tangential amendments in the Senate, though he told National Journal he believes a compromise can be reached. The bill has also faced criticism in the House from outside the Science Committee, with the Republican Study Committee branding it as the “Endless Pork Act.”

(Ed. note: The APS FYI science policy newsletter is a good source for regular coverage for these particular bills and U.S. science policy generally)

Broadly speaking, the Endless Frontier Act pursues an innovation initiative for the U.S. as a whole. The House bill for NSF has a narrower focus. Clearly geopolitical tensions also come into play. China’s rise in the world of science and technology (China’s successful Mars landing on March 14 this year is a concrete example) and strained U.S.-China relations have prompted a number of calls to address U.S. science and technology competitiveness.

Senate debate on the Endless Frontier Act is expected to last for a couple of weeks. Changes are expected, even as noted by Schumer in his remarks. For example, as now written, the bill includes $2 billion for semiconductor R&D targeting defense and the autos. Reuters reports a group of senators is also working on a bill to include $52 billion for chips. One expects a consolidation of many of those kinds of efforts with winners and losers.

If enacted even roughly as is the Endless Frontier Act is likely to be impactful (more funds, targeted research). Its contents should start to become clearer soon.

UPDATE – ANNOUNCEMENT OF U.S. INNOVATION AND COMPETITION ACT OF  2021

Washington, D.C.  Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer today filed the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 as a substitute amendment to the Endless Frontier Act:

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer today filed the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 as a substitute amendment to the Endless Frontier Act. The bipartisan substitute amendment brings together the already-bipartisan Endless Frontier Act from Leader Schumer and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), which passed the Senate Commerce committee last week and includes more than twenty bipartisan amendments, the Menendez-Risch Strategic Competition Act of 2021, the Brown-Toomey Meeting the China Challenge Act of 2021, as well as bipartisan legislation from the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, HELP Committee, Judiciary Committee, and Appropriations Committee.

The Schumer substitute amendment also includes $52 billion in emergency funding to implement the bipartisan CHIPS Act included in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and a program to support legacy chip production that is essential to the auto industry, the military, and other critical industries. An additional $1.5 billion is provided for the implementation of the USA Telecommunications Act that was also passed as part of last year’s NDAA to foster U.S. innovation in the race for 5G.

“The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 will jumpstart American competitiveness and make one of the most significant government investments in American innovation and manufacturing in generations,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “I’m proud that this bipartisan legislation is the product of hard work from more than a half-dozen Senate committees and includes input from nearly every member of the Senate. This legislation will allow the United States to out-compete countries like China in critical technologies like semiconductors, create good-paying American jobs and help improve our country’s economic and national security.”

A section-by-section summary of the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 can be found here and the text of the legislation can be found here.

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