FYI: Science Policy News

FY23 NDAA: Science and Technology Policy Highlights

JAN 19, 2023
Major science and technology provisions in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act cover issues such as intelligence agencies’ adoption of emerging technology, biomanufacturing, the technological rivalry between the U.S. and China, and research capacity-building at minority-serving institutions.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-RI) and Ranking Member Jim Inhofe (R-OK)

From left, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-RI) and Ranking Member Jim Inhofe (R-OK). This year’s National Defense Authorization Act is named in honor of Inhofe, who formerly chaired the committee and retired at the end of the 117th Congress. (Image credit – Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via AP Images)

President Biden signed the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2023 on Dec. 23, marking the 62nd year in a row the federal government has enacted general defense policy legislation.

Each year, the NDAA covers a sprawling array of policy issues across the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, including various matters of science and technology policy. Among the subjects addressed this year are the technological rivalry between the U.S. and China, defense laboratory modernization, and DOD support for research capacity-building at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

Because the NDAA is a “must-pass” bill, lawmakers also often use it as a vehicle for legislation covering other agencies, which this year include the Department of Homeland Security, State Department, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and U.S. intelligence agencies. Echoing its ongoing efforts to sharpen DOD’s technological capabilities, Congress has taken a significant interest this year in the intelligence community’s handling of emerging technologies.

An explanatory statement accompanying the NDAA discusses what provisions lawmakers included, modified, and left out based on earlier House and Senate versions of the bill. Throughout this bulletin, numbers in brackets refer to provisions’ section numbers in the bill.

Intelligence and defense innovation

Emerging technologies for intelligence. Provisions covering science and technology policy for intelligence agencies are grouped together as Title LXVII of the NDAA. Among these provisions, one requires that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) carry out a pilot program to annually designate up to 10 technology projects as eligible for rapid transitioning into production. Another gives the office flexible transaction authorities similar to those already available to DOD to fund R&D projects, with a cost cap of $75 million per transaction. A third assigns ODNI’s director of science and technology responsibility for overseeing policies and budget recommendations pertaining to emerging technologies and for coordinating with DOD on joint technology programs and initiatives. [Secs. 6703, 6711, and 6713]

“ICWERX.” ODNI is to report on the prospects for supporting an organization similar to AFWERX, an arm of the Air Force Research Laboratory that engages with technologically innovative companies. The assessment is to consider both the ability of such companies to serve intelligence agencies’ needs and those agencies’ ability to incorporate commercial technology. [Sec. 6722]

Geospatial intelligence. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is to establish a six-member advisory board covering various matters, including innovation and the incorporation of commercial capabilities. [Sec. 6432]

DOD innovation strategy. DOD is to develop and quadrennially update a “strategy fostering and strengthening the defense innovation ecosystem.” [Sec. 236] In recent years, Congress has also required DOD to develop a “National Defense Science and Technology Strategy” and to assess the vitality of the “national security innovation base.”

Army Futures Command. The Army Department is to report on how it will improve Army Futures Command based on the recommendations of a recent National Academies report . [Sec. 239] The Army established the command in 2018 to consolidate authority over modernization initiatives and R&D as well as to broadly encourage a spirit of innovation. More recently, the Army has been considering redirecting the command toward efforts with longer time horizons.

DOD laboratory facility projects. A pilot program allowing DOD to annually allocate up to $150 million from its research, development, test, and evaluation accounts to construction projects at department labs and similar facilities was slated to expire in 2025 but is now made permanent. The legislation did not retain a House proposal to raise the cap on the program’s expenditures to $300 million. A separate authority allowing DOD to undertake discretionary “minor” laboratory construction projects costing up to $6 million was also made permanent, but a House proposal to raise the cost cap to $12 million was not adopted. The NDAA also establishes a new authority allowing DOD to specifically propose in its annual budget request “military construction projects for innovation, research, development, test, and evaluation.” [Secs. 2803 to 2805] In general, DOD has been encountering difficulty in seeking funding from Congress for laboratory and testing infrastructure and lawmakers have been promising to address the situation.

FFRDC facilities. Military departments are authorized to lease land at no cost to Federally Funded R&D Centers they contract with and to convey ownership of facilities on that land to them, provided the transaction furthers the purposes of the contract. [Sec. 2831]

National lab discretionary funds. A pilot program is made permanent prohibiting national labs overseen by NNSA from using discretionary Laboratory-Directed R&D funds to pay for overhead costs. [Sec. 3116]

Prizes for technology management. DOD’s authority to award technology prizes is expanded to allow prizes for technology program management practices that result in improvements in performance, schedule, or budget. [Sec. 844]

Support for invention. The Navy Department is to carry out a three-year pilot program that will support department personnel in developing patentable inventions related to their work. [Sec. 224]

STEM workforce and MSI capacity-building

MSI capacity-building initiative. With guidance from a recent National Academies report , DOD is to establish a 10-year pilot program that will support efforts to elevate selected HBCUs and other MSIs to the top tier of research-conducting educational institutions. Institutions eligible for support will already have second-tier research status, as measured by the Carnegie Classification of Institutes of Higher Education. Supported activities can encompass faculty professional development, stipends for students and postdoctoral researchers, faculty and graduate student recruitment and retention initiatives, the acquisition of laboratory equipment, facility modernization, and communication of research results. A separate provision directs DOD to conduct a pilot outreach program to MSIs that promotes opportunities with the National Security Innovation Network, a DOD initiative that supports entrepreneurial training and partnerships. [Secs. 222 and 223]

Intelligence agencies and MSIs. ODNI is to develop a plan to promote intelligence-related engineering and R&D activities at MSIs. Subject to appropriations, the office is also authorized to award MSIs capacity-building grants and contracts. [Sec. 6812]

Intelligence technology workforce. ODNI is to develop a plan to continuously evaluate intelligence agencies’ needs for expertise in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies and to recruit and retain personnel skilled in AI specifically. A separate provision directs the office to develop a training curriculum for intelligence agency acquisition officials “focused on improving the understanding and awareness of contracting authorities and procedures for the acquisition of emerging technologies.” A third provision calls for a report on the prospects for establishing a “technology acquisition cadre” focused on accelerating the adoption of commercial AI and other emerging technology products and services. [Secs. 6723, 6731, and 6732]

Recruitment of skilled personnel. DOD is authorized to offer pay rates up to 150% of its ordinary highest level to attract recruits to positions at department labs and related facilities that require “expertise of an extremely high level in a scientific, technical, professional, or acquisition management field.” Each military department is limited to hiring five such employees at any one time, each with a term of employment of up to five years. [Sec. 1106] In addition, the office of the under secretary of defense for research and engineering is authorized to hire up to 10 employees with special pay rates for terms of up to four years. The Space Development Agency’s authority to hire people on such terms is extended through 2030 and the number it may hire is increased from 10 to 15. [Secs. 213 and 1109]

DARPA fellowships. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is directed to develop a plan for establishing an “Innovation Fellowship Program.” [Sec. 235] DARPA already established the program last year, offering early-career scientists and engineers two-year positions at the agency.

DOD laboratory workforce. An expiring pilot program that grants DOD lab directors flexibility to “dynamically shape” their workforces is extended through 2027. The program authorizes the use of mechanisms such as term-limited appointments and incentives to encourage early retirements and voluntary separations. [Sec. 1110]

Women in STEM roles. DOD is to conduct a study on how to increase the participation of women in military and DOD civilian positions related to STEM. [Sec. 564]

Space technology education. The Air Force Department is authorized through 2027 to support applied research activities in areas such as space domain awareness, satellite navigation, communications, and hypersonics that promote student education in the field and international collaboration. [Sec. 1607]

NNSA workforce. The statutory cap on the total number of full-time NNSA employees is eliminated. [Sec. 3117] Los Alamos National Lab and DOE’s Savannah River Site are also authorized to support workforce development and training partnership programs for current and prospective employees in programs they are standing up to produce plutonium cores for nuclear warheads, which are known as “pits.” [Sec. 3126]

Nuclear weaponry

Plutonium pit aging. DOE is directed to use its Defense Programs Advisory Committee to biennially review progress in implementing a recently completed research plan on the aging of plutonium pits. DOE is also to commission an updated study from the JASON science advisory group on pit aging by no later than the end of 2030. [Sec. 3124] JASON previously completed a landmark study of the subject in 2007 and weighed in again in 2020.

Uranium. The required contents of the biennial plan DOE submits on U.S. uranium stocks available for national security purposes are modified to include consideration of uranium produced by private industry. In addition, the plan is now required to address uranium enrichment options that would reduce reliance on foreign sources and potentially produce uranium for commercial use. [Sec. 3112]

Advanced manufacturing. DOE is authorized to allow its nuclear weapons production facilities to expend up to 5% of the funds appropriated to them on “research, development, and demonstration activities in order to maintain and enhance … engineering and manufacturing capabilities.” [Sec. 3125]

Nuclear nonproliferation. To prevent the illicit spread of nuclear materials, DOE is authorized to convert sites employing accelerators and other “alternative technologies” in nuclear research and production to other purposes. This authorization was previously limited to sites employing fissile and radiological materials and related equipment. [Sec. 3115]

Selected technology initiatives

Biomanufacturing. DOD is directed to fund facilities that will contribute to the development of U.S. bioindustrial manufacturing capabilities by, for instance, performing R&D on manufacturing processes or functioning as regional technology hubs. [Sec. 215] Following on an executive order issued in September, DOD is planning on spending $1 billion over five years to build up domestic biomanufacturing infrastructure and Congress has just appropriated $300 million for the establishment of biotechnology manufacturing institutes.

Manufacturing USA test beds. NIST is given authority to award financial assistance to Manufacturing USA institutes for building test beds and other specialized facilities. Priority is to be given to institutes partnering with MSIs, minority businesses, or rural-serving educational institutions. [Sec. 5911]

Battery technology. DOD is authorized to carry out a pilot program called the “Warfighter Electric Battery Transition Project” that would assess the prospects for supporting battery producers in conducting R&D on battery technologies for military uses and in bringing such technologies into production. [Sec. 225]

Hypersonic missile defense. DOD is to submit a “comprehensive layered strategy to use asymmetric capabilities to defeat hypersonic missile threats.” The strategy is to cover subjects such as short-pulse laser technology, microwave systems, and cyber capabilities. [Sec. 1662]

Signal transmission. The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is to use a competitive process to support demonstrations of electromagnetic technologies that can operate in congested spectrum environments and protect against jamming of the Global Positioning System. [Sec. 217]

Microelectronics. DOD is to establish a microelectronics working group to facilitate coordination with industry and academia on matters such as research and infrastructure needs, supply-chain issues, and security. Another provision directs the department to develop a “capability for quantifiable assurance to achieve practical, affordable, and risk-based objectives for security of microelectronics.” [Secs. 219 and 220] The department has broadly embraced an approach to microelectronics acquisition that centers on mitigating rather than eliminating security risks.

International affairs

An illustration from a DOD news story showing a Chinese flag overlaid on a circuit board

An illustration from a recent DOD news story on the relationship between the security and sourcing of defense technology. (Image credit – C. Todd Lopez / DOD)

China and semiconductors. The NDAA establishes a prohibition to take effect in five years on federal agencies procuring electronics with semiconductors produced by entities in a “foreign country of concern,” by certain Chinese companies, or by other entities that DOD or the Commerce Department may identify. [Sec. 5949] It also instructs ODNI to assess China’s global competitiveness in semiconductor production. [Sec. 6505]

Assessment of Chinese capabilities. The NDAA mandates the establishment of a “cross-intelligence community analytical working group” addressing China’s economic and technological capabilities that also encompasses matters such as the country’s efforts to acquire U.S. technology and recruit foreign talent. [Sec. 6503] Two years ago, Congress directed DOD to establish capabilities for assessing the “defense technological and industrial bases of China and other foreign adversaries.” The CIA established a working group on China in 2021.

Chinese academic institutions. DOD is directed to identify China-based institutions of higher education that “provide support” to the Chinese army. [Sec. 1258] Congress has previously directed the department to maintain similar lists of academic institutions in China and other countries that are more broadly deemed to present research security risks.

SBIR/STTR disclosure requirements. Congress updated policy for the multi-agency Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs through separate legislation last fall. The NDAA amends a provision in that legislation requiring companies applying to those programs to disclose if their owners are wholly based in China or another “country of concern” so that it applies to all countries. [Sec. 872]

Domestic production waiver. The Department of Homeland Security is prohibited from granting waivers on domestic manufacturing requirements for inventions based on R&D it funds if the waiver would result in the product being “manufactured substantially” in a country of concern. [Sec. 7114]

State Department initiatives. The NDAA provides statutory backing to the State Department’s recently established Regional Technology Officer Program and sets a $25 million annual budget target for it. The provision stipulates at least two officers be assigned to each of the department’s regional bureaus and the Bureau of International Organization Affairs to handle technology-related foreign policy. A separate provision directs the department to operate a short course for its senior officials “addressing how the most recent and relevant technologies affect the activities of the department.” [Secs. 9507 and 9508] The department has just announced it is establishing an Office of the Special Envoy for Critical and Emerging Technology and it is not yet clear how that office will relate to these initiatives.

State Department fellowships. The total value of grants and cooperative agreements the State Department is permitted to make annually in support of its science and technology fellowship programs is increased from $500,000 to $2 million. [Sec. 9203]

AUKUS. DOD is to commission a study of challenges facing implementation of the new partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. known as “AUKUS.” The study is to cover subjects such as intellectual property and export controls as well as options to expand the U.S. “submarine and nuclear power industrial base” to support an agreement to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines. [Sec. 1276] The leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee recently expressed concern that the submarine deal could divert resources from the U.S. Navy, but leaders on the House Armed Services Committee have defended the arrangement.

New Zealand. New Zealand is added to the National Technology and Industrial Base , a group of countries the U.S. collaborates with on defense technology that also includes the U.K., Canada, and Australia. [Sec. 851]

R&D agreements with the EU. DOD’s authority to enter into collaborative R&D agreements with foreign governments and organizations is extended to the European Union and associated entities. This authority was previously limited to individual allied and friendly countries and to entities associated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. [Sec. 211]

Environmental research

An output from NOAA’s Global Forecast System model showing a forecast of atmospheric moisture.

An output from NOAA’s Global Forecast System model showing a forecast of atmospheric moisture. (Image credit – NOAA)

Public access to NOAA models. NOAA is directed to develop and implement a plan to make its various environmental models publicly accessible with an open license, with appropriate consideration for factors such as national security and privacy protection. The agency is further directed to review and adopt innovations in models from individuals outside NOAA, in line with the mission of the agency’s new Earth Prediction Innovation Center . The provision sets a $2 million annual budget target over five years for these efforts, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates they would require more than 10 times that much to implement effectively. [Sec. 10601]

BLUE GLOBE Act. NOAA is directed to study the status of its scientific and technical workforce and to consider focusing one or more of its cooperative institutes on emerging technologies such as uncrewed vehicles, big data management, and advanced genetic technologies. [Secs. 10103 and 10104] These provisions are pared back from more-expansive versions of legislation known as the BLUE GLOBE Act.

National Ocean Exploration Act. The NDAA includes provisions broadly updating policy for NOAA’s ocean exploration activities and enshrining in statute interagency ocean policy panels created within the last several years. [Secs. 10301 to 10308]

Ocean acoustics. Among various provisions aimed at the protection of marine mammals, the NDAA backs and sets a $1.5 million annual budget target for NOAA’s efforts to monitor human-generated ocean noise, which is known to cause harms to various species. [Sec. 11305]

Arctic research. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is to assemble annual reports reviewing the activities and budgets of federal agencies’ research-related activities in Arctic regions. [Sec. 5912]

Icebreaker. In a provision authorizing the U.S. Coast Guard to acquire a new icebreaker vessel, the NDAA stipulates it should have a “scientific research capacity comparable to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy , for the purposes of hydrographic, bathymetric, oceanographic, weather, atmospheric, climate, fisheries, marine mammals, genetic and other data related to the Arctic.” [Sec. 11223]

NOAA aircraft. NOAA is directed to acquire new aircraft for reconnaissance and research purposes with a recommended fiscal year 2023 budget of $800 million. [Sec. 11708] Through a supplement to its fiscal year 2023 appropriation, the agency received $328 million for the acquisition of “hurricane hunter” aircraft, which came on top of $100 million it received for the same purpose earlier last year in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Volcano monitoring. NOAA’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers are directed to integrate their activities with the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. [Sec. 10501]

Environmental security center. DOD is authorized to operate a “Center for Excellence in Environmental Security” that facilitates training, research, and interagency coordination in matters such as access to water, food, and energy, as well as their implications for health and for social, economic, and political stability. [Sec. 311]

Emerging risks

“Catastrophic and existential” risks. In coordination with various federal agencies, the Department of Homeland Security is directed to conduct once-per-decade assessments of “global catastrophic and existential threats.” Such threats are taken to include both natural and human-caused events, such as severe global pandemics, nuclear war, asteroid and comet impacts, supervolcanoes, sudden and severe changes in climate, and threats stemming from emerging technologies. [Secs. 7301 to 7309]

Global pandemic preparedness. The NDAA incorporates the Global Health Security and International Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Act of 2022, which updates policy for U.S. participation in global pandemic preparedness and response efforts and sets a target five-year budget of $5 billion for those activities. [Secs. 5559 to 5566] Separately, Congress’ fiscal year 2023 appropriations package established a permanent White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy with up to 25 staff members.

Space debris. DOD is directed to submit a previously requested report on risks presented to national security space assets by orbital debris and on plans to mitigate them. [Sec. 1610]

“Anomalous” phenomena. This year’s NDAA updates provisions in last year’s legislation covering unidentified anomalous phenomena, a generalization of the term “unidentified aerial phenomena” that encompasses not only unexplained objects in the air, but also at sea, in space, and on land. The new provision directs DOD to establish a secure mechanism for reporting sightings, to prohibit reprisals against personnel who report sightings, and to investigate any prior use of nondisclosure agreements surrounding reports. [Sec. 1673]

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