Massive science-funding bill passes US Senate — but China focus worries researchers

The US Senate has voted overwhelmingly in favour of legislation that invests heavily in the US National Science Foundation (NSF). But the bill, once aimed primarily at helping the United States to maintain its status as a global leader through direct funding for research and development, now includes amendments aimed at preventing China from stealing or benefitting from US intellectual property — a development that scientists fear could threaten international collaborations.

In another major revision, Senate advocates for other US agencies that conduct research, such as the Department of Energy (DOE), have chipped away at the funding allotment originally intended for the NSF, arguing that they also deserve some of the money.

But if the legislation passes the US House of Representatives, the NSF could still see a doubling of its budget over five years. Given the agency’s large role in funding basic research, science-policy researchers are praising this outcome.

Although they have concerns, researchers agree that an investment of this size in US scientific research is long overdue: funding of US scientific research has not kept pace with the nation’s economic growth. “Even if it weren’t for the competition with China, the American people deserve the benefits that come from these kinds of investments of taxpayer money,” says Neal Lane, a science-policy researcher with the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, who is a former NSF director.

The bill “will jump-start American competitiveness, and make one of the most significant government investments in American innovation and manufacturing in generations”, said Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, who co-sponsored the legislation, which passed on 8 June.

The legislation began in 2020 as the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), which proposed investing US$100 billion to create a technology directorate at the NSF, an agency that funds almost a quarter of all federally backed basic research at US universities. The directorate would act as a hub for translating fundamental scientific discoveries into commercial technologies.

Because the NSF’s budget had risen only incrementally since the agency’s inception 70 years ago, many researchers and policy experts were elated to see renewed interest in the agency. But the focus on the NSF was quickly overshadowed during early debates in Congress, when senators of states with national laboratories, and those who were members of committees representing agencies such as the DOE, began vying for a slice of the multibillion-dollar pie. At the same time, US lawmakers questioned whether the legislation included adequate security measures to protect against espionage from global competitors, such as China.

Eventually, the Senate incorporated a revised version of the EFA into a much larger legislative package called the US Innovation and Competition Act (I&CA), which includes the provisions that curtail — and increase scrutiny of — Chinese involvement in government-funded research. The EFA now authorizes a $120-billion cash infusion to multiple US science agencies. The NSF would receive $81 billion of that amount over 5 years; 36% of that would be designated for the technology directorate and 10% for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and workforce development (see ‘Budget breakdown’). The remaining research funding would go to NASA, the DOE and the Department of Commerce.

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