Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee leaders staked out key policy positions today on proposed legislation that would greatly expand the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) technology research funding portfolio.

The proposed legislation – which has yet to be formally introduced in the current session of Congress – will be an updated version of the Endless Frontiers Act debuted in the House and Senate last year with bipartisan support.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in February he plans to introduce the bill in order to “out-compete China” as a global tech leader and create new American jobs in the tech industry.

The bill debuted by Sen. Schumer last year would have expanded the National Science Foundation (NSF), renamed it the National Science and Technology Foundation (NTSF), and established a technology directorate within NTSF to handle  $100 billion of funding over five years for research in AI and machine learning, high-performance computing, robotics, automation, advanced manufacturing, and other key technologies.

“I want this bill to address America’s short-term and long-term plan, which is protect the semiconductor supply chain, and to keep us number one in things like AI, 5G, quantum computing, biomedical research, storage – all of these things are part of the bill and the Endless Frontiers Act,” Schumer said on Feb. 23.

Both Senate Commerce Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., expressed general support for NSF research functions at today’s committee hearing, but also aired some concerns.

The bill, Sen. Cantwell said, “is still being worked on by our colleagues, but nonetheless, is the stimulus for a very big debate about America’s competitiveness as it relates to research and development.”

She said that Federally-funded research between 1996 and 2015 had produced more than $1 trillion in economic growth, and “millions of new jobs.” By contrast, she said, Federal investments in research and development are at their lowest point in 45 years as measured against Gross Domestic Product, and have been flat for two decades when adjusted for inflation.

“This comes as international competition is increasing, and other nations are ready to challenge our position on the world’s innovation stage,” the senator added. “I think one of the fundamental questions for us is what our committee can do to bolster” the confidence of congressional appropriators to back increased Federal investments envisioned by the coming legislation. Sen. Cantwell also said she was interested in addressing further investments in the STEM workforce.

Sen. Wicker, speaking to the “concept” of an Endless Frontiers bill, said he endorsed a “strong innovation ecosystem” that includes government, academia, and the private sector.

But he offered some notes of caution to the expected scope of Sen. Schumer’s coming bill, saying that a major expansion of NSF “should not detract from the agency’s core mission of advancing basic scientific knowledge.”

Sen. Wicker said Congress also should “ensure that we avoid duplicating R&D missions of other Federal agencies – dozens of which invest in basic and applied research and technology development . . . Whatever we enact should contain sufficient guardrails to protect the NSF core mission and coordinate properly with other departments and agencies.”

He also cautioned against trying to beat China “by copying” that country’s strategy of reaching tech dominance.

“China is betting that an ambitious, top-down program of applied research and investment along with subsidies for technology companies will produce global dominance in key technology areas, yielding both civil and military uses,” the senator said. “Strategic investments in technologies and supply chains are important, but we will not win by simply throwing money at the problem, we could actually end up doing harm if recipients of funding through this concept lack the capacity and capability to conduct R&D activities that are actually useful.”

He further questioned the coming bill’s lack of security provisions, saying, “we also need to guard the fruits of our R&D system by preventing China from stealing American research and technology. So far as I can tell, the proposed bill does not include any provisions to bolster research, security, and integrity, particularly at our universities, so we are going to need to address that.”

Finally, Wicker criticized current Federal research funding which he said distributes half of all such funding within only six states. “Unfortunately, this uneven distribution has changed little over the decades,” the senator said. “Since we have not actually seen complete bill language, it is not clear to me that the Endless Frontier act will go far enough to change this paradigm.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.