- A rare bipartisan effort to bolster our competitiveness with China aggressively seeks to transform the National Science Foundation (NSF).
- The bill seeks to increase the NSF budget to $100 billion a year over five years.
- Critics argue the Act would distract and detract from the traditional work the NSF is essential for. Proponents say the Act would set up a barrier between the traditional directives and the new.
The Endless Frontier Act was introduced in the 116th Congress last year by Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Todd Young (R-IN). Along with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) in the House.
A rare bipartisan effort to bolster our competitiveness with China aggressively seeks to transform the National Science Foundation (NSF). The first major overhaul of the independent agency since its inception by Congress in 1950. The NSF annual budget flows through a variety of universities and American colleges.
The NSF budget request on their brochure to Congress is an estimated 7.8 billion. They estimate that amount will support 8,100 new research projects. Fueling big ideas such as “New knowledge such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, nanotechnology, gravitational waves, and resilient infrastructure.”
Senator Schumer (D-NY) is hard at work with colleagues across the aisle this year to reintroduce the bill. The aim is to transform the National Science Foundation into the National Science and Technology Foundation (NSTF). With a new directive,
“to establish a regional technology hub program, to require a strategy and report on economic security, science, research, and innovation, and for other purposes.”
The ultimate purpose for the legislation being the assertion that our leadership position in these high-tech areas is being eroded. Evidenced that,
“The United States once led the world in the share of our economy invested in re-search, our Nation now ranks 9th globally in total research and development and 12th in publicly financed research and development.”
All aimed towards China, the bill seeks to increase the NSF budget to $100 billion a year over five years. This money channeled towards an assortment of previously stated university-led research centers, testbeds, and consortia.
The new technology directive would mirror to a degree the Defense of Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This would allow its program managers to drive toward targeted research and development outcomes. As it stands, the NSF currently uses external peer review of grant proposals to steer its programs.
Other goals of the bill include improving education in key technical areas, in layman’s terms, translating the R&D research into viable processes and products available to the government and public for consumption and use.
Will this aggressive bipartisan effort put us into a position to reclaim dominance in leading the world in science and technology?
In Favor of Revamping the Agency for the Future
MIT President Rafael Reif has argued in strong favor of The Endless Frontier Act. He opens with the question,
“Is the United States’ science and technology enterprise currently configured and funded to meet the challenge posed by China?”
He challenges that the question has not received enough attention from policy-makers. He makes a good point in saying that we have focused too much on weakening China rather than strengthening the United States.
The Census of China leading in 5G technology is a prime example, Reif argues, is a significant marker of America falling behind. He admits the bill itself alone may not be enough but states,
“critically, the Endless Frontier Act would boost the kind of research needed in key fields where we face stark competition.”
Critics argue the Act would distract and detract from the traditional work the NSF is essential for. Proponents such as Reif say the Act would set up a barrier between the traditional directives and the new.
“The bill would, after all, assign an additional mission to NSF,” says Reif, “the bill makes clear that NSF’s traditional work is to continue, and the bill rightly creates a wall between the new and existing directorates.”
Making the Argument This is Not the Right Path
Patrick Windham, a former Senate staff member, joined two science policy scholars to voice their perspective that this is not the best course. They offer a different view instead of the proposed legislation that is forthcoming.
One thing they do agree with is that America’s leadership in technological innovation is no longer assured. They also agree that “government investments in advanced technologies are good for the United States.”
They ask if the new money generated from the bill is “really the most effective way to develop and commercialize new technologies?” The main pushback is if university research is the best key driver of US technology development and commercialization.
University research alone by itself seemingly may not translate into commercial use or innovative products by itself. As Windham presents, “universities are not equipped to undertake large applied engineering projects, much less to translate the resulting new technologies into products and processes.”
They use, as an example, the efforts in the 1990s to identify “critical technologies” and how those efforts failed. It is difficult to predict which technologies will be the most valuable in the future. Also, R&D funding priorities “inevitably become political, as groups and leaders vie to have their favorites supported.”
The alternative idea is to let agencies scan for the latest and newest innovations. Once identified, “then agency leaders and, for big initiatives, the White House and Congress vet these ideas and decide which to support.”
They advocate to let the NSF continue being the NSF without transformation. The confusion of the bill, as mentioned before, would create DARPA-like managers who would supervise projects with our peer review while still directing that they may use peer review. How would specific projects know what path to take?
Windham and his colleagues’ ultimate conclusion is that a separate entity would benefit from the same directives. There is no need to transform the NSF and expand support for manufacturing institutes to be ready for new technologies to emerge from the equation’s R&D side.
Why This Matters
Both sides of this issue have merit. However, it’s most important to say we go after and fund future innovation the American way. Let’s advocate for research and development that extends to the general public.
Total reliance upon the government to extend and expand our technological governance is shameful at best when thinking of American ingenuity. Americans are some of the best-known inventors and entrepreneurs in history. The freedom of our country gives rise to the likes of electricity and beyond.
We must look at other policies that seek to damage the middle America, the small business owner, and the likes. The public will ultimately take what these institutions and bodies that Congress creates to new levels.
The public will take these institutions to new heights and lengths and depths that the government cannot imagine. The freedoms we enjoy we must protect and so that America’s bright minds will rise and create.
Yes, this is a bipartisan effort, but how much of our political spectrum is not? Everything else seemingly is contested now. Two fundamental ideas are divided into how we feel and honor our constitution.
Will this new endeavor survive if the left democrats get their way eventually and turn our nation into a socialist totalitarian regime?
It is a brief, flickering hope that the two major parties will reunite and work together for the American people’s best. We must not forget that ordinary people are the real backbone of innovation and life in America.
We must set our eyes on the bigger picture; either way, this legislature will present itself in 2021, and everyone must decide if this is the best course of action.
Keefer is passionate about America and the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. His writings focus on the intersectionality of faith and culture.