On April 21, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Todd Young (R-IN), Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), and Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) reintroduced the Endless Frontier Act, a $100 billion dollar proposal to ramp up investment in technology research and development aimed at countering China and ensuring American leadership in innovation.
Should it pass, the bill would have major implications for the National Science Foundation (NSF). It would invest $100 billion over 5 years in a new Directorate for Technology and Innovation within NSF, focused on translational research to bridge the gap between basic science and technology commercialization. The bill does not directly authorize funding increases across the other research directorates, including the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences and Education and Human Resources Directorates which are underfunded. However, it requires that the new directorate use at least 15 percent of its funding to partner with the other directorates on basic and use-inspired research with implications for technology development.
Funding for the new directorate would be held outside of NSF in an “Endless Frontier Fund” managed by the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). In addition to $100 billion for NSF, the fund would include over $12 billion for technology and manufacturing programs at the Department of Commerce.
Senators Schumer and Young first introduced the Endless Frontier Act in 2020. This new version of the bill incorporates important changes requested by the research advocacy community. Provisions were removed which would have created a new Senate confirmed Deputy Director and Advisory Council, altering the governance structure of NSF, and renamed the agency. The new version creates a Chief Diversity Officer at NSF and invests in programs to support a diverse STEM workforce, in addition to building research capacity at a wide range of emerging research institutions.
Nonetheless, the legislation raises serious questions. Without directly authorizing additional spending across the research directorates, the Endless Frontier Act proposes to create a single directorate with a budget over 10 times that of the entire agency as it exists today. The advocacy community has expressed concern that such a focused investment in use-inspired research may drown out the importance of curiosity-inspired basic research that is the core of NSF’s mission. Such an approach also fails to adequately invest in fundamental research that creates the foundation for technological advances in the long term. Providing this funding in an externally managed account also detracts from NSF’s independence to pursue the highest quality science.
The Endless Frontier Act is only one part of an ongoing Congressional dialogue on the future of the National Science Foundation. In the House of Representatives, Members of the Science, Space, and Technology committee have proposed the NSF for the Future act, to double the Agency’s budget over 10 years and create a new technology-focused directorate, within the Research and Related Activities Account, with funding levels more in line with those of the other research directorates.
Congress continues to debate these proposals. A committee markup was scheduled for the Endless Frontier Act, but was postponed after lawmakers proposed 200 amendments to the bill. They may be incorporated into a larger package aimed at international competition or worked into infrastructure legislation. While it is exciting to see such enthusiasm for investment in NSF, it is important to note that these are only authorizing bills, meaning the actual funding must be provided separately in appropriations legislation.
FABBS recently joined over 100 organizations and coalitions on a letter requesting that the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees provide the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) Subcommittees with ample resources for strong budgets for the federal agencies in their jurisdiction, including the NSF. In years past, the CJS subcommittees have expressed a desire to increase funding for the NSF yet had been unable to due to inadequate subcommittee allocation.