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House Passes NSF Reauthorization

February 10, 2022

Last week, the House passed the America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing Pre-Eminence in Technology and Economic Strength (America COMPETES) Act of 2022, marking an important step toward reauthorizing the National Science Foundation (NSF). Now, the two chambers need to reach an agreement that reconciles differences between this bill and the Senate-passed United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA).

America COMPETES Act

Last year, the House passed the NSF for the Future Act, which provides for a thorough reauthorization of NSF. FABBS endorsed this bipartisan legislation, which was crafted carefully and with extensive input from the scientific community and reflects the need for substantial long-term investments in curiosity-inspired basic research.

The Funding authorizations in this bill would lead the NSF budget to grow to almost $18 billion by FY 2026. A new Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions would receive a substantial portion of new funding, though existing NSF programs would almost double over the life of the bill.

The America Competes Act combines the NSF For the Future act with other bills on a range of issues, from domestic semiconductor manufacturing to international trade policy. It also includes science policy bills endorsed by FABBS:

  • Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act (Also included in USICA)
  • Supporting Early Career Researchers Act (Also included in USICA)
  • Rural STEM Education Act (Also included in USICA)
  • STEM Opportunities Act
  • MSI STEM Achievement Act

This large package better matches the scope of USICA, allowing more direct negotiations over differences between the two.

USICA

USICA is a package of bills, passed last year, addressing investments across federal agencies and focused on global competition, particularly with China.

It includes NSF reauthorization, growing existing programs by over 40 percent by 2026. NSF provisions in USICA, however, are more focused on the new Directorate for Technology and Innovation, which would grow from $1.8 billion in 2022 to $9.3 billion in 2026, at which point it would account for almost 45 percent of the Foundation’s budget.

The bill also adds onerous research security requirements that could create a burden for scientists and institutions looking for federal support on international collaborations.

The legislation includes several of the science policy bills seen in the America Competes Act, and which FABBS endorsed:

  • Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act
  • Supporting Early Career Researchers Act
  • Rural STEM Education Act

USICA also contains the Research Investment to Spark the Economy Act, which was not included in the House legislation. The provision would invest in mitigating research disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Path Forward

Until recently, progress had stalled on these legislative ideas. At the end of 2021, Senator Majority Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi agreed to form an official committee to negotiate differences between each chamber’s proposals. That committee was never formed, however, and Congress seemed focused on other priorities until a new push from the Biden Administration, largely focused on semiconductor manufacturing provisions included in both packages (the CHIPS for America Act),  triggered a renewed effort to move forward on the legislation..  

Passage of the America COMPETES Act was a key step for House leadership to take, paving the way for direct negotiations with the Senate. However, this action also comes with drawbacks. While the NSF for the Future Act passed with a strong bipartisan majority (345-67), the America COMPETES Act passed with only a single Republican vote; not all of the constituent bills were crafted in a bipartisan fashion and combining them led to a loss of Republican support for the entire package.

In the Senate, where the current makeup and filibuster rules require that most legislation must be bipartisan, USICA garnered the support of 19 Republican Senators with one Democrat opposed.  At least 60 Senators will need to support a final compromise to send the bill to President Biden’s desk.

It will likely take months to bring this process to fruition. Senator Young, the Republican leader on USICA, suggested Memorial Day as a potential target for final passage. Additionally, Senator Ben Ray Lujan, a Democrat from New Mexico, is currently recovering from a stroke, leaving Democrats with only 49 votes for the time being. This will undoubtedly delay many of Senate Democrats’ plans and could affect the timing of NSF Reauthorization. Nonetheless, these developments are good news for the National Science Foundation, and FABBS is encouraged to see the Administration, Senate, and House come together to make federally supported research a top priority.

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