US lawmakers cross party lines in major research funding push

China concern drives leaders of both parties to propose nearly doubling National Science Foundation budget

March 29, 2021
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A bipartisan group of leading US lawmakers has produced a bill to nearly double the budget of the National Science Foundation, giving a substantial boost to the idea in a Congress generally bogged down by political mistrust.

The initiative was put forth by the top Democrats and Republicans on the House of Representatives’ science committee, who see a substantial revival of US research capacity as essential after decades of the US slipping on global measures.

The lawmakers said they were motivated by an array of areas – including climate and the environment, artificial intelligence and supercomputing, and advanced manufacturing – where the US must remain competitive.

They also made clear that the specific threat posed by a fast-rising China was helping to bring them together in an era of divided US politics where the two parties often struggle even to talk with each other.

“Competitiveness with China will not be possible if we do not unleash our nation’s STEM talent on the full range of challenges we face,” the committee’s Democratic chair, Eddie Bernice Johnson, said in announcing the bill.

“America’s continued scientific leadership requires strategic investment in basic and fundamental research,” said the committee’s top Republican, Frank Lucas.

The House bill would raise the NSF’s annual budget from about $8 billion (£5.8 billion) to more than $13 billion within five years. It serves as a counterpart to one pending in the Senate proposed by that chamber’s Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, that would balloon the NSF’s budget by an additional $20 billion a year.

The Schumer measure would largely devote its additional funding to a new NSF division focused on promoting applied research – converting the basic science discoveries financed by the NSF into commercial uses.

That reflects US policymakers’ anxieties that China is getting ahead economically by prioritising that kind of exploitative use of scientific discoveries – if not stealing them outright – rather than spending enough money on a robust basic science programme of its own.

The House version, by contrast, would create a new Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions. That division also would aim to promote real-world uses of basic research, but in what its authors described as avoiding a prescriptive emphasis on topics that they see in the Senate version.

The concern on the House side stems in part from the nearly decade-old experience of the National Institutes of Health with its National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, a division that has long been criticised for trying too hard to perform the functions of private industry.

Authors of the House version said they hoped that their planned new NSF unit would point out some broad social challenges and then let solutions to them flow in creative ways from the NSF and the scientists it funds.

The House bill also includes provisions to aid postgraduate science students, to help students at minority-serving institutions, to build academic-business partnerships, and to require ethics statements in grant-funded projects.

Democratic and Republican staff aides on the House science committee – in a unique bipartisan press briefing – said they anticipated talks with Mr Schumer’s team aimed at finding common ground.

Despite the relatively friendly inter-party atmosphere of the House science committee, its staff acknowledged that deep partisan divisions remain a major obstacle to the passage by Congress of any major legislation beyond budgetary matters.

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