by Nathan Drucker
figures by Daeun Jeong

As the U.S. recovers from the pandemic and shores up its environmental defenses from a rapidly changing climate, federal money is being spent like never before. Simultaneously, the exceedingly competitive global economy is driving lawmakers to thrust the American economy into the 21st century. One result of this fervor is a potentially vast increase in federal funding for science and technology. In April 2021, a bipartisan group of Senators put forward the Endless Frontiers Act, a proposal that would pump almost $100 billion into science and technology funding. By June 2021, the Senate passed the legislation, repackaged it as part of the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act (USICA), and sent it to the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives responded with their own proposal, dubbed the America COMPETES Act. Embedded within these two proposals are different visions for the role of science and technology within American society for the years to come. One the one hand, the Senate version (USICA) adopts more of a ‘top-down’ legislative architecture with congress explicitly setting research priority areas. On the other hand, the House version (America COMPETES) is structured more from the ‘bottom-up,’ reflecting research priorities predominantly set by the scientific community. Comparing the USICA and the America COMPETES Act sheds light on how science and technology shape political debate, and conversely, how political debate molds science and technology. With the House of Representatives and Senate debating these bills in the coming months, it remains to be seen which vision of science in America will win.

Science situated in crisis

Funding for science in America has historically been embedded in societal issues. President Lincoln chartered The National Academy of Science, a non-government organization, during the Civil War, reportedly after the first battle between iron-clad warships. The calamities of World War I and World War II highlighted the significant role of science and technology in modern warfare, ranging from penicillin to chemical weapons and the atomic bomb.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized how critical America’s science infrastructure was to the Allied victory during World War II and solicited advice on converting wartime research into peaceful endeavors from his advisor and Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Vannevar Bush. In response, Bush wrote Science: The Endless Frontier, an essay which advocated for federal support of science and technology through a “National Research Foundation.” The National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies which fund science can trace their lineage to Vannevar Bush’s and Roosevelt’s interest in systematically funding research to address America’s societal problems.

American society is at another major juncture defined by crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Federal spending played a tremendous role in rapidly developing vaccines for COVID-19, not to mention decades of research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other programs focused on virology and mRNA. Similarly, taxpayer dollars are actively used in the research and development of clean energy technology like batteries and solar panels. Pandemic recovery legislation and President Biden’s multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill allocate billions of dollars for research and development (R&D). 

International competition—both economic and geopolitical— continues to be another major driving force for R&D funding. The growth of the Chinese economy has been outpacing the U.S. for over a decade, and their rapid development of a competitive high-technology sector has alarmed many Americans. Indeed, both the USICA and America COMPETES include the word ‘compete’ in their working titles. In fact, the USICA specifically cites economic and ideological competition with China as a justification for large increases in R&D funding in specific areas such as artificial intelligence.

With so many high-stakes paths for federal funding to go, who decides which projects get funded and how do they decide? These questions are central to a longstanding debate surrounding the role of science and technology in modern society.

Who should set scientific priorities?

Science is a capital-intensive enterprise.  As nation-states began to fund R&D during the 20th century, scientists actively debated how to balance their own interests with those of their governments when creating scientific institutions and setting research priorities–part of a concerted effort to establish forms of scientific governance. For Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian-British polymath, scientific society organizes itself as a marketplace of ideas and regulating this marketplace from the outside would reduce its productivity. In America, Vannevar Bush was concerned about military interests completely controlling R&D infrastructure after World War II, so his proposed “National Research Foundation” encouraged greater autonomy of the scientific community funded by non-military interests.

More recently, there have been public concerns over certain directions of science and technology. For many, the initial excitement surrounding the internet has given way to anxiety about privacy and misinformation. Developments in robotics and artificial intelligence threaten the livelihoods of millions of people. Meanwhile, genetic engineering continues to raise ethical concerns, from genetically modified (GM) foods to “designer” babies. Especially in a democratic society, the debate on how to balance public interests, private interests, and the interests of the scientific community remains an active conversation.

A distinguishing feature of the American science funding landscape is the alphabet soup of government agencies investing in science with their own missions. For example, the NSF has traditionally focused on fundamental research for its own sake, rather than projects with the explicit goal of technological development. The Department of Energy (DOE) funds research for energy related science and technology, whereas the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) focuses more on research for economic advancement. Other major funders of research include the Department of Defense (DoD), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) along with many more.  The missions of these agencies can overlap, but their variety can be an effective way of including many different kinds of research in the entire federal portfolio. 

What are USICA and the America COMPETES Act?

The recent push for increased science funding began with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN) chatting while they exercised in the Senate gym. By April 2021, these two senators and their collaborators composed bipartisan legislation to advance semiconductor manufacturing, create regional technology hubs, and establish a Directorate for Technology and Innovation in the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Senate initially named the legislation the Endless Frontiers Act, an homage Vannevar Bush’s essay. But after two months of legislative processes, the bill was edited and incorporated as part of the United States Innovation and Competitiveness Act (USICA).

A principal focus of the USICA is strengthening U.S. leadership in technology to compete with global rivals. It aims to expand domestic semiconductor manufacturing, research, and development. Furthermore, it allocates more funds for the Deference Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the DOE. Another major part of USICA would create a Directorate for Technology and Innovation in the NSF with a list of ten ‘key technology focus areas’ to be updated periodically. A budgetary breakdown for funding increases proposed by the USICA is shown in Figure 1. 

The America COMPETES Act is the House version of the bill sponsored by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30). This version also includes appropriations for domestic semiconductor manufacturing in addition to funding to improve America’s supply chains. For scientific funding, the House version aims to redesign NSF, DOE, and NIST. This approach is in contrast with the Senate version which primarily aims to establish a new technology directorate only for the NSF. Other parts of the House version of the bill would raise the NSF, DOE and NIST office of science budgets, shown in more detail in Figure 1. 

Figure 1. Budgetary breakdown of America COMPETES (left) and USICA (right). USICA proposes larger budget increases across the board and intends for the NSF technology directorate to have a larger budget than the rest of NSF. 

How do the USICA and America COMPETES Act express competing visions of scientific governance?

The deliberation over scientific governance is alive and well in the congressional debate over the USICA and the America COMPETES Act. The USICA appropriates more money than the America COMPETES Act, but it is more focused on developing technologies from basic scientific discoveries through the new NSF ‘Science and Technology Directorate.’ This technology directorate represents a significant shift from the previous mission of the NSF, which is supposed to focus more on basic science that does not necessarily hold technological promise. While broad, the ten technology focus areas for the USICA are heavily weighted towards developments in fields of advanced computing such as quantum information science and machine learning. These priorities are to be set by a combination of lawmakers and agency directors, representing a form of scientific governance from outside the scientific community (depicted in Figure 2, left). Right now, these priorities heavily reflect concerns over national security and economic competition. 

Figure 2. America COMPETES and USICA propose different structures of scientific funding. USICA has a top down approach, where congress dictates priorities, whereas America COMPETES focuses more on the priorities of the scientific community. 

In contrast, the America COMPETES Act looks more to scientists to define their own course, and has provisions to restructure the DOE and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Rep. Johnson (D-TX) has expressed concerns that the geopolitically competitive tone of the USICA could be a potential turnoff to the scientific community. The House bill specifies more focus areas across different funding agencies than the Senate version, including areas not directly related to geopolitics. This diversity of scientific research topics from multiple government agencies suggests that the scientific community has played a larger role in setting the agenda of the America COMPETES Act (depicted in Figure 2, right).

The competing visions are also reflected in alternative mechanisms for funding projects in jurisdictions which are historically underrepresented. Both bills aim to strengthen the DOE Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which aims to stimulate STEM activity in targeted geographic areas and communities. However, the USICA aims to secure additional money for specific regions, whereas the America COMPETES Act does not require as much funding to be tied to particular geographic zones. For some government officials such as the DOE Under Secretary for Science and Innovation Geri Richmond, geographic quotas would conflict with merit-based allocation of research funding, which is a practice firmly rooted in the view of science as a decentralized marketplace of ideas. For others, this program plays a vital role in stimulating research and education in districts which can be overlooked by the merit-based allocation system. 

Despite the differences between the two bills, lawmakers and scientists alike are very excited about the proposed increases to R&D funding. Researchers are eager to repair, maintain, and expand America’s critical science infrastructure to address the crises of our time and explore the wonders of nature. The USICA and America COMPETES Act each have bipartisan support and are currently in the conferencing stage. A final bill is slated to be announced over the summer.

Nathan Drucker is a PhD candidate in Applied Physics with a secondary field in Science, Technology and Society at Harvard.

Daeun Jeong is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at Harvard University. 

Cover Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

 For More Information:

  • For updates on recent progress on Capitol Hill, look here and here.
  • Read about responses from the scientific community to plans to geographically diversify funding here.
  • Read the recent letter by the Federation of American Scientists to the House and Senate leaders.

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