Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Ellen Kuo
Thursday, May 6, 2021

House Subcommittee Hearing Examines Future of U.S. Innovation through the National Science Foundation

The Subcommittee on Research and Technology in the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing titled “National Science Foundation (NSF): Advancing Research for the Future of U.S. Innovation.” The hearing focused on a course of action and a vision for a rapidly advancing future and our country’s innovation agenda. During the hearing, Chair Haley Stevens (D-MI) said the proposed 20 percent increase to the NSF budget has the potential to unleash more scientific research. This research would support the study of the changing climate, advance our nation’s efforts in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, technology transfers, and much more, including the continued response to the pandemic.

A key bill referenced during the hearing was the NSF for the Future Act. This bill was developed over time with input from many stakeholders, including FASEB, policy leaders, and other experts. It was meant to be authorizing legislation to leverage NSF’s strengths and protect its core mission. The legislation would advance and scale up innovations in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education by training the next generation of researchers and innovators. It would also address threats to research security, ensure researchers were thinking through the societal impacts of their work, and, most important, propose a new directorate for science and engineering solutions. However, that would not be the new directorate’s singular focus said the Chair.

Ranking Member Michael Waltz (R-FL) added that investments in science and technology truly are drivers of economic growth. He said numerous studies have concluded that as much as 85 percent of the long-term growth in America’s economy is attributed to advancement in science and technology. However, the country is at an inflection point and is losing its edge. With a specific reference to the Chinese Communist Party, he said it is a formidable and growing strategic challenge to our way of life. America will not be able to outcompete China by copying its strategy. He proposed the agency specific approach of NSF for the Future Act or, as an alternative, the Securing American Leadership in Science Act, which creates a national science and technology strategy and doubles funding for basic research across federal science agencies over 10 years.

Sethuraman Panchanathan, PhD, NSF Director, and Ellen Ochoa, PhD, Chair of the National Science Board, were witnesses at the hearing. Dr. Panchanathan listed three areas of focus in his testimony regarding the country’s need to take a comprehensive approach to research and development (R&D): advancing the frontiers of science and engineering research into the future, ensuring accessibility and inclusivity in STEM, and leading the global community by our country’s actions and values. He testified that the American Jobs Plan and the fiscal year (FY) 2022 discretionary request from the administration proposed strong investments in R&D, including a $50 billion investment in NSF, creating a new technology directorate, and increasing NSF’s budget in FY 2022 by 20 percent. These proposals would accelerate its ability to champion basic research — critical to the country’s future.

Referencing the National Science Board Vision 2030 report, Dr. Ochoa focused on two areas: delivering benefits from R&D and developing the domestic STEM talent through efforts like the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which plays an important role in retaining scientific talent. In reference to delivering benefits to everyone, she recognized the need to speed up the path from discovery to innovation with a new structure at NSF. Acknowledging that there were multiple proposals on how to do this, she laid out these principles for consideration: Any new directorate should work synergistically with the existing ones, strengthen NSF’s basic research missions, and create robust feedback loops to couple its work to the current discipline-oriented directorates. She also noted that she wanted to see the board’s governance role kept intact and, finally, funding for any new directorate will need to include support for people and operations.

In connection with advocacy communities’ focus on securing strong funding for NSF, Representatives G. K. Butterfield (D-NC) and David McKinley (R-WV) led a Dear Colleague Letter encouraging their colleagues to join them in calling for at least $10 billion for NSF in FY 2022. This letter was sent to the relevant House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over NSF funding and is consistent with FASEB’s recommendation.