03-26 Rice University Wendy Hu

[Image above] Rice University graduate student Wendy Hu, pictured, is leading development of a new technique to help clinicians obtain meaningful patient groupings. Research like Hu’s that uses big data falls under the key technology areas promoted by the Endless Frontier Act. Credit: Credit: Jeff Fitlow, Rice University

If you conduct basic science research in the United States, chances are high that you’ve received funding through the National Science Foundation (NSF). Created by Congress in 1950 “to develop and encourage the pursuit of a national policy for the promotion of basic research and education in the sciences,” NSF is now the funding source for approximately 27% of the total federal budget for basic research conducted at U.S. colleges and universities.

However, in recent years, a push to make NSF a more applied research agency has gained steam in Congress. Today’s CTT provides a brief overview of this endeavor and discusses how, if successful, it may affect basic science research.

Why NSF focuses on basic research

When NSF was founded in 1950, the decision to focus on basic research was largely influenced by the changing relationships among government agencies, universities, private foundations, and industry during World War II. Prior to the war, there had been numerous yet modest government–science interactions, but WWII vastly intensified that environment.

A New Deal senator from West Virginia, Harley Kilgore, introduced successive pieces of legislation in 1942, 1943, and 1945 aimed at creating a broad science organization that supported both basic and applied research. Vannevar Bush, a respected engineer and science administrator who headed the government’s wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, agreed that federal support of science should continue after the war.

However, Bush felt that Kilgore focused too narrowly on science and technology’s benefits to society. As a Physics Today article explains, “He charged that Kilgore’s bill advanced science in the name of military preparedness at the expense of science’s primary aim of ‘increase[ing] the knowledge and the understanding of man … [and] extending his grasp of the environment in which he lives and his appreciation of the vast and intricate system of nature by which he is surrounded.’”

The 1945 report “Science—The Endless Frontier” by Vannevar Bush (pictured) played a seminal role in shaping how the federal government would support fundamental science following World War II. Credit: Office for Emergency Management, United States Library of Congress (retrieved via Wikimedia)

Bush maneuvered to have President Franklin D. Roosevelt request from him a report on how the nation should support science in the postwar period. His report, “Science—The Endless Frontier,” (1945) emphasized the importance of basic research and broadened the meaning of the term to refer simultaneously to the demands of policymakers for practical innovation and to the interests of scientists in curiosity-driven enquiry.

“Bush’s ‘basic’ research descriptor helped to secure a pragmatic compromise between scientists and politicians,” a Nature article explains, and it set the stage for basic research as the main focus of NSF in the succeeding decades.

China’s investments drive pivot to applied research

Since 2000, China has significantly increased its investment in scientific research—and a recent report by NSF shows that China is quickly closing in on the U.S.

“From 2000 to 2017, R&D spending in the United States grew at an average of 4.3% per year, … But spending in China grew by more than 17% per year during the same period,” a Nature article on the report explains. “The United States accounted for 25% of the US$2.2 trillion spent on R&D worldwide in 2017, and China made up 23%.”

These statistics have concerned U.S. government officials, and the past year only heightened the concerns. “The coronavirus pandemic has shown the science and technology gap between the United States and the rest of the world is closing fast and that threatens our long-term health, economic competitiveness, and national security,” writes Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in a statement. “America cannot afford to continue our decades-long underinvestment and expect to lead the world in advanced scientific and technological research.”

These concerns are a major reason why, at the end of 2019, a nascent proposal in Congress to reorganize NSF began taking shape.

Endless Frontier Act pushes applied research for NSF

Schumer first spoke publicly about a proposal to have the federal government increase support for applied research on November 5, 2019, during a conference organized by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. He said the goal of the proposal was to create a new research-funding entity provisionally called the “National Science and Technology Foundation” that would focus on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, and 5G telecommunications.

At that time, Schumer did not indicate whether the entity would be permanent or if it would expire at the end of a suggested five-year funding period. However, it became clear that the initiative was meant to be a permanent change when Schumer and three bipartisan colleagues introduced the Endless Frontier Act in May 2020.

The bill, which is named in reference to Bush’s “Science—The Endless Frontier” report, would implement two major changes to NSF. One, the bill would establish a new Directorate for Technology within NSF, bringing the total numbers of directorates to eight. (We discussed the setup of NSF directorates and divisions in a 2019 CTT post.) Two, NSF would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation (NSTF) to reflect the addition of the technology directorate.

“The Directorate for Technology would fund an assortment of university centers, testbeds, fellowships, and technology consortiums, with a total recommended budget rising to $35 billion within four years, dwarfing the agency’s current $8.3 billion topline. The bill also proposes to create a multi-billion dollar technology hub program within the Commerce Department focused on catalyzing R&D partnerships in areas that are not already leading centers of innovation,” an FYI article on the bill elaborates.

While the bill’s sponsors argue this reorganization of NSF is necessary to remain competitive on a global level, some leaders in the science community expressed concerns that it would dilute NSF’s purpose.

“I believe it would be a mistake for a technology directorate at NSF to serve as an offset to private funding for commercial innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Arden Bement, who led NSF from 2004 to 2010, in a Science article. “Federal funding for applied technology research and development should be need-based and channeled through mission agencies.”

The Endless Frontier Act did not receive a vote before the end of the last Congress. But this February, Schumer announced that he planned to use the Endless Frontier Act as the “centerpiece” of a legislative package aimed at bolstering U.S. competitiveness with China in critical technology sectors.

While the committees with jurisdiction over NSF have yet to formally weigh in on the bill, several former NSF directors and former chairs of the agency’s governing body signed a letter in support of the bill (including Bement, who previously expressed reservations.)

“As former NSF directors and National Science Board Chairs with decades of government experience, we are supportive of the spirit of this legislation,” they write. “We note that basic research is increasingly coupled to applications that respond to national needs. … The Endless Frontier Act would position NSF to take up that challenge.”

Besides the Endless Frontier Act, there are several other proposals for increasing applied research funding that do not involve drastically reorganizing NSF. For example, Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) introduced separate legislation in 2020 to establish a “Federal Institute of Technology” that would fund dozens of R&D hubs across the country, while Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) proposed creating a new division in NSF that would fund partnerships between universities and local workforce organizations.

In addition, the recently released report by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence recommends establishing a new agency called the National Technology Foundation that “would complement successful existing organizations, such as the NSF and DARPA, by providing the means to more aggressively move science into engineering.”

So, will the Endless Frontier Act be signed into law? It is too early to say, but bipartisan support for the bill suggests there is a stronger likelihood that at least some parts of it will become law.

If you want to let Congress know your thoughts on the Endless Frontier Act, GovTrack.us helps you walk through the process of writing or calling your representative and senators. More information on the Endless Frontier Act can be found here.

Update 03/26/2021 – The House Science Committee introduced a bipartisan bill on March 26, 2021, that offers an alternative vision for the National Science Foundation than that of the Endless Frontier Act. Learn more about their bill here, which proposes to double the National Science Foundation budget over five years and add a directorate to the agency focused on “societal challenges.”

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