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Senators Pump Brakes on Endless Frontier Act

APR 16, 2021
Sponsors of the Endless Frontier Act have delayed reintroducing the bill amid pushback from some senators, including leaders of key committees, who held hearings this week to debate the legislation’s vision for transforming the U.S. research system.
Mitch Ambrose headshot
Director of FYI

Todd Young

Image credit – Office of Sen. Todd Young (R-IN)

The Endless Frontier Act has run into headwinds in the Senate, with leaders of key committees seeking significant changes and some questioning its central aim of transforming the National Science Foundation.

The version of the bill introduced last year by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) proposed that Congress allocate $100 billion over five years through a new technology directorate within NSF. While the Biden administration has embraced that concept and Schumer is pressing to move toward a floor vote, a new version has yet to be introduced. Young told reporters this week, “A lot of my colleagues are approaching me and indicating that we need to slow this thing down. … They’re conscientious and want to grow comfortable with the text.”

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which oversees NSF, weighed in on the legislation for the first time at a hearing this week. Though broadly sympathetic, committee members warned against giving the government too large a role in promoting specific technologies and advocated for the bill to better incorporate agencies beyond NSF. Republicans also indicated they would push to add provisions aimed at preventing the Chinese government from exploiting U.S.-funded R&D.

Lawmakers sketch red lines

Young, who is on the committee, made a case for bold action at the hearing, arguing that China’s growing investments in research and emerging technologies represent a new “Sputnik moment” for the U.S. He argued that “economic history” provides examples, such as the Apollo program, that show intensive federal R&D spending can have broad national benefits. He also noted he is making the bill more “comprehensive” based on feedback from other senators.

“In coming weeks, I think we’ll have a product that we can all rally around,” he said.

Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) did not comment on particular provisions of the bill, but expressed general support for increasing R&D spending, lamenting that the federal government’s share of total U.S. R&D spending has declined over the past 50 years. However, she stressed the need to build consensus over the appropriate level of spending, noting that NSF’s budget has not caught up to the levels Congress recommended in the America COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010, which were modest compared to those now under consideration.

“I think one of the fundamental questions for us is what our committee can do to bolster the confidence of our appropriation allies that these are the right levels of investment and should be adhered to,” she remarked.

NSF appropriations history chart

Cantwell further cautioned against veering toward a “planned economy strategy,” saying, “I want to make sure that we continue to think of ourselves as a capitalist country in how there’s nothing better to put the right money on the right research than when capital is on the line. … The fact that we have capital markets funding the investment creates a level of due diligence that gets us to success.”

Committee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) similarly warned against trying to compete with China by “copying its strategy.”

“Strategic investments in technologies and supply chains are important, but we will not win by simply throwing money at the problem,” he said, adding, “We could actually end up doing harm if recipients of funding through this concept lack the capacity and capability to conduct R&D activities that are actually useful.”

More specifically, Wicker said the legislation should contain “sufficient guardrails to protect the NSF’s core mission and coordinate properly with other departments and agencies.” In addition, he said the bill should include provisions to strengthen research security practices, “particularly at our universities.”

Both Wicker and Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) emphasized that the bill should address longstanding geographic imbalances in the allocation of R&D spending, echoing points made by top Republican appropriators in hearings on the NSF budget earlier in the week.

“Nearly half of federal research dollars over the last 20 years went to just six states, with more than one-third just for two states, California and Maryland,” Wicker said. “I’m really not interested in advancing a bill that doesn’t address this disparity.”

Thune further asked for input on how the Endless Frontier Act could “better recognize and incorporate the role of other federal research efforts,” specifically mentioning the Department of Energy.

Other senators have also argued DOE should be assigned a more prominent role in the bill, including Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-WV), who held a hearing on the topic this week. At that event, the top Republican on that committee, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), blasted the bill for vastly expanding NSF’s footprint in technology areas that DOE has deep expertise in, suggesting it would create a “wasteful rivalry” between the agencies.

FYI will cover that hearing in further detail next week.

Trump’s science chief offers his perspective

Kelvin Droegemeier speaking at a 2020 National Academies symposium marking the 75th anniversary of the touchstone science policy report, Science: The Endless Frontier.  (Image credit – Karen Sayre / Eikon Photography, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Kelvin Droegemeier speaking at a 2020 National Academies symposium marking the 75th anniversary of the touchstone science policy report, Science: The Endless Frontier.

(Image credit – Karen Sayre / Eikon Photography, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Among the six witnesses who spoke at the hearing was Kelvin Droegemeier, who led the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Trump administration and before that was a member of NSF’s governing board for 12 years. He testified that NSF has been “woefully underfunded for many years” and argued that “redressing years of failed attempts to increase the NSF budget is a national imperative for American competitiveness.”

However, Droegemeier expressed reservations about the complexity of the Endless Frontier Act, which envisions NSF funding a constellation of technology-development consortia, testbeds, and lab-to-market efforts. The bill also proposes a multi-billion dollar initiative at the Commerce Department to fund “regional technology hubs,” and a draft revision currently circulating proposes vastly expanding the department’s support for the Manufacturing USA institute network.

Droegemeier said it is unclear how all the organizations involved in these efforts would interact and anticipated “extraordinary challenges in accountability, especially with regard to evaluating the collective activities that are in place to achieve more than the sum of their individual parts.”

Nevertheless, he supported the idea of expanding NSF’s existing activities in “use-inspired” research and empowering the entire agency to use a more active program-management model, akin to that used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Addressing the proposed technology directorate, he said it should be structured in such a way that it needs to work closely with other federal agencies and NSF directorates to achieve its goals.

Responding to Thune’s query about how the legislation could better leverage agencies beyond NSF, Droegemeier pointed to a report on “Industries of the Future Institutes” produced by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at the end of the Trump administration. The report envisions such institutes would bring together researchers from across academia, industry, and government, including DOE’s national labs.

“The whole point is to go from fundamental curiosity-driven research all the way to product scale-up and pre-production prototype development, all within the same framework,” Droegemeier explained, saying the U.S. currently suffers from a “hand-off-and-hope model” for technology commercialization.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) pressed Droegemeier on how to determine the level at which further federal R&D spending could become counterproductive, such as by crowding out private-sector spending. He replied that the U.S. lacks the “science of science policy framework” needed to make such an assessment, echoing President George W. Bush’s OSTP director, Jack Marburger, who pushed for the government to develop better benchmarks for science spending

Addressing potential downsides of a surge in spending, Droegemeier added, “It might make people far less hungry to come up with innovative ideas. We don’t want to do that. We want people to be hungry and to work really hard for the money they get. That’s one of the hallmarks of our system.”

However, he cautioned that “starving” researchers of funding can also undercut the virtues of competition.

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