Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Ellen Kuo
Wednesday, May 19, 2021

House Science Committee Advances NSF Bill; Biden’s Full Budget Expected By Memorial Day

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Research and Technology Subcommittee held part II of its hearings on the National Science Foundation (NSF) before the NSF for the Futures Act bill made its way to subcommittee markup on May 13. Chair Haley Stevens (D-MI) expressed enthusiasm as a proud co-sponsor of the bill, which is a comprehensive authorization for the agency proposing a doubling of its budget in five years. It will accelerate the longstanding challenges in scaling up effective science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education innovations, educating workforce-ready STEM graduates, and training the next generation of researchers and innovators with accountability to the public. She stated, “New requirements in the bill would address threats to research security and ensure researchers are thinking through the societal impacts of their work.” Finally, the bill makes use-inspired and translational research a strategic priority with a new directorate for science and engineering solutions. The agency will be further empowered to take risks, forge new partnerships, and pursue research-driven solutions to a broad range of societal issues.

The main focus of the hearing was to hear from stakeholders from academic and research institutions as well as industry. Gabriela Cruz Thompson, Director of University Research and Collaboration at Intel Labs, Intel Corporation, provided support for the bill. Her main points of interest were in the new directorate; sustainable increase in authorizations of appropriations; support of students, teachers, and broadening participation of minorities in STEM; and provisions to develop and widely disseminate criteria for trusted open data and software repositories. Her recommendation for the bill was that it further enable partnerships with private industry by calling for broader consortia, scaling the Convergence Accelerator, and prioritizing funding for major research equipment and facilities construction focused on semiconductor manufacturing. She gave the committee an example of how Intel works with NSF by announcing a new initiative, “Resilient and Intelligent Next-Generation Systems,” which involves the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Defense, and eight private companies. The focus is to accelerate research in areas that will improve the resiliency of emerging Next Generation wireless and mobile communication, networking, sensing, and computing systems.

Another witness, Mahmud Farooque, PhD, Associate Director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes and Clinical Associate Professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, also supported NSF in taking on new responsibilities while keeping the agency’s primary mission of supporting curiosity-driven research as its guiding light. He stated, “The U.S. is seriously lacking in having a publicly supported infrastructure for incentivizing and funding substantive public engagement, the need and demand for which is continuing to grow. The good news is that NSF not only has seeded many public engagement activities that are bearing fruit, it has also supported many of the converging scientific fields—informal science education, science communication, science and technology studies, citizen science, uncertainty in decision-making, democratic theory and science policy.” He recommended NSF take a holistic approach and not just support engagement activity, but also its integration in research, education, and decision-making.

Gerald Blazey, PhD, Vice President for Research and Innovation Partnerships at Northern Illinois University, called on the committee to remember the smaller institutions that make up the research ecosystem. With a smaller research footprint, these institutions encounter numerous challenges building and sustaining research programs and centers, all of which are addressed by NSF sponsorship. He highlighted external funding facilitates the initiation of research programs at all institutions. However, this is particularly important for smaller institutions with limited resources. Once established, funding stability is key to smaller research portfolios because institutional resources may not be available to bridge funding gaps. Another challenge is the limited infrastructure and the inability to purchase and operate up-to-date instrumentation and equipment. Such a challenge lessens the competitiveness of proposals and attractiveness of science programs to potential students and faculty. To meet the challenge, NSF has programs such as the Major Research Instrumentation program to support equipment purchases, but the program is oversubscribed.

During the hearing, Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) asked Dr. Blazey about the reformulation or expansion of the Graduate Research Fellowship program to ensure students receive cross-disciplinary training. Dr. Blazey said that from his past work at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, he saw that mostly students were being educated to enter academia. However, nearly half of them would end up going into industry and be ill-prepared for basic things like project management, rigorous safety training, hazard awareness analysis, team building, etc. Therefore, he recommended giving them softer skills to work in non-academic environments which would require NSF to reformulate what traineeships look like in the new directorate.

FASEB continues to monitor this bill as it moves through the legislative process. Although the House Science Committee has not announced the date of full committee consideration of H.R. 2225, it is anticipated that it will be scheduled soon followed by a vote in the full House.

Additional insight about NSF funding is expected to be included in President Biden’s full fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget proposal which is scheduled to be sent to Congress by Memorial Day. Members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have been eager to see the details of Biden’s budget since he released an overview in April. The House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittees are planning to mark up the 12 spending bills to fund the government for FY 2022 in June, with floor passage expected in July, per comments from Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). Senate appropriators have not indicated when they will begin consideration of their FY 2022 measures.