Biden signs major US science spending boost

Sparked by fear of Chinese technological competitiveness, Congress acts to double NSF budget with push for applied technology

August 9, 2022
First category allegorical float: "buffalo Biden" builder Carlo Lombardi. canevale of Viareggio, in Tuscany, Italy
Source: iStock

US president Joe Biden has signed into law a landmark measure promising a huge infusion of research funding, saying the nation needs to take more seriously the competitive threat posed by China.

The bill, shaped by the Democrat-controlled Congress through two years of determined negotiations by party leaders, includes doubling the $9 billion (£7 billion) annual budget of the National Science Foundation over five years while creating within it a new directorate of applied technology.

“America is back and leading the way,” Mr Biden told political, educational and industry leaders gathered for the White House signing ceremony. “We’ll invest in America and invent in America,” he said.

The measure enjoys wide support across much of US higher education, although with an understanding that the promised money still requires Congress to appropriate it through its annual budgeting process, and with some concern that the NSF’s new priority on applied science could detract from its founding focus on basic research.

On balance, said the Association of American Universities – the main grouping of top US research institutions – the bill “will help us remain the world’s leaders in scientific research, innovation, and economic growth despite ever-increasing global competition”.

The bill is the latest in a running series of efforts over the years by Congress to try to recapture the urgency of the Sputnik era, when the nation collectively felt threatened by Soviet advances in science. The federal government now spends less than 1 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development, down from a peak of 2 per cent in the mid-1960s.

Mr Biden lamented that the US, once the world’s leader in research and development investment, now ranks ninth. China, meanwhile, has moved up into second place globally. But with the new bill, he said, “we are better positioned than any other nation in the world to win the economic competition of the 21st century”.

As part of its emphasis on technology-related national security concernsthe bill provides nearly $53 billion for research, development, manufacturing and workforce development in the US semiconductor industry. That element – combined with administration officials warning lawmakers against relying on computer chips from China and Taiwan – was considered critical to breaking a stalemate that long blocked separately crafted bills addressing investments in the NSF and other federal science agencies.

The US Senate voted 64-33 to pass the final form of the combined bill, with 17 Republicans in favour, and the House voted 243-187, with 24 Republicans backing it, despite calls from the opposition party’s leadership in the House to reject it. The Republican leaders have suggested the bill is too expensive, although they’ve also been watching Democrats push through several such major bills in recent days that are seen as raising hopes that Democrats might yet have a chance of retaining legislative control in the November elections.

Along with its doubling of NSF money, the new law outlines a 45 per cent increase in spending by the Office of Science at the Department of Energy and a 50 per cent increase at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. In total, it promises $280 billion in new federal science spending over five years.

Other elements include authorising the spending of $10 billion to promote the idea of regional innovation and technology hubs, where universities work with local governments and companies to push forward promising industries.

The new law also establishes a framework for new investments in science-related education and training at all levels of education from kindergarten through graduate schools.

The provisions put a particular emphasis on boosting scientific talent among minority and underserved students and communities, with specific investments for colleges and universities that educate those populations. “We are going to make sure we include all of America,” Mr Biden told the White House ceremony.

Yet the bill also expands a federal strategy known as Epscor that sets aside federal research dollars for institutions in states that fare poorly in the regular peer-review-based system for allocating the money based on merit. The initiative – politically popular but shown to be of questionable value to the nation’s scientific enterprise – would consume at least 20 per cent of NSF research funding by 2025, up from current levels of about 12.5 per cent.

The newly signed legislation also gives universities and federal agencies new powers and expectations to fight sexual and gender-based harassment in the sciences.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles