Washington Update

Washington Update

By: Ellen Kuo
Thursday, April 22, 2021

Congressional Hearings Highlight America’s Science and Technology Enterprise as a Top Priority

At an April 14 hearing to review the Endless Frontier Act, Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) of the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee stated, “Today federal investment in research and development is at its lowest point in 45 years when measured against gross domestic product (GDP).” She also emphasized the need to improve the shortage of workers in STEM that are needed to do the research and development.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is the worldwide gold standard for basic research agencies with 236 Nobel Prizes won by NSF-funded researchers, said Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS). Research security and integrity will also need to be addressed in any Endless Frontier Act bill that is introduced to protect research and will be part of a larger China package that Congress is contemplating. Building bipartisan consensus will be important for authorization and appropriations committee consideration of the bill. Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Todd Young (R-IN) and Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) introduced the bill on April 21.

During the Senate’s hearing on the bill, the Honorable Kelvin Droegemeier, Regents Professor at the University of Oklahoma and former Acting Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), said it is imperative to increase the NSF budget, which has been woefully underfunded for a long time. NSF should be able to take big risks and nonprofits and academia need to be at the table. Any new technology directorate (as envisioned in the bill) should be organized to be a larger umbrella for a process that supports scientific inquiry, beginning from fundamental to applied to preproduction scaled prototype research. However, he did have some reservations based on a lack of details for parts of the bill.

Speaking on the topic of diversity, all pathways to work in STEM must be supported according to Marie Lynn Miranda, PhD, Provost at the University of Notre Dame. She discussed eight recommendations to bring more women into STEM fields and highlighted that use-driven researchers and curiosity-driven researchers work together. In her testimony, Miranda reminded the audience that federal funding from Congress has fueled research by scientists that has resulted in societal benefits. One example was the Madagascar periwinkle that fascinated curiosity-driven researchers. It was further investigated by use-driven researchers at a pharmaceutical company to create vinblastine, which was used to save her daughter’s life from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Another witness, Gary D. Butler, PhD, CEO of Camgian, told members to make no mistake that the U.S. is in an artificial intelligence race which will create a new generation of military technology that allows for quicker and more accurate responses. He also wanted to see the entire country — not just tech hubs — be able to access science and engineering opportunities.

FASEB will continue to monitor the bill’s progress.