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

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking at a press conference in Washington, DC.

Senator Chuck Schumer, who has championed the Innovation and Competition Act, speaking at a press conference.Credit: Michael Brochstein/ZUMA/Alamy

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.

Windfall downsized

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.

Budget breakdown: Chart showing the proposed funding for the US National Science Foundation under the Endless Frontier Act.

Source: Endless Frontier Act (2021)

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.

Some are disheartened by the downsizing of the investment in an NSF technology directorate. But others who had worried that an intense focus on the directorate would give short shrift to basic research and therefore undercut the central mission of the NSF see advantages in the new form of the bill. For instance, Lane says the decreased allotment for the directorate gives the agency more discretion and flexibility to fund projects that could lead to innovative technologies both through basic science and applied-research initiatives.

Staying competitive

Increased funding to the NSF is an important investment for the United States, especially as China continues its own strong investment in infrastructure for research and development, says Lane. China awards more bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering than do the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And researchers in China publish more articles than do those in the United States, increasingly in high-impact journals.

But lawmakers reviewing the EFA say that a huge boost in funding for the NSF might end up benefiting China, too — and this concerns them. Over the past few years, the United States and countries such as Australia have taken steps to safeguard technology and intellectual property that has been developed through international collaborations with China. The actions have come partly in response to cases of alleged intellectual-property theft and concern regarding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘military–civil’ fusion strategy, which aims to co-opt university research in China for military use.

“I don’t want the taxpayer funds to go in the front door and then to have the research go out the back door to China or other adversaries,” said senator Rob Portman, a ranking member on the Senate Committee for Homeland Security and Government Affairs, in a recent Senate floor proceeding. His additions to the I&CA include the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, which would establish a Federal Research Security Council in the Office of Management and Budget to develop policies governing grants for research and development.

Many university officials support the funding increase for US science, but they’re keeping a close eye on provisions in the legislation aimed at curbing foreign influence on research. This includes a ban on federally funded researchers participating in foreign talent-recruitment programs, such as China’s Thousand Talents Plan, which recruits researchers to share their expertise and knowledge.

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) in Washington DC, an advocacy group for university research, is particularly concerned about a requirement that foreign gifts to universities of $1 million or more be reviewed by a committee that normally scrutinizes massive business investments from foreign sources. “It’s not designed to look at short-term contracts or gifts to universities,” says Deborah Altenburg, associate vice-president for research policy and government affairs at APLU. She worries that, if the amendment becomes law, the review process for universities could be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

Multiple congressional investigations have highlighted the need for increased awareness of national security concerns in partnerships with China and other foreign nations. But Denis Simon, executive director of the Center for Innovation Policy at the Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina, cautions that being too reactive to China’s investment strategies could distract legislators from setting their own agenda for the future of research in the country. The United States is at the forefront of international efforts to tackle global challenges — including climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic — and it is to the country’s benefit to collaborate with international partners such as China to find sustainable solutions, he says. Simon, who once served as the executive vice-chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in China, says that increased scrutiny on Chinese scientists who collaborate with US research projects is already sending “tremors through the system”.

A long road lies ahead before the I&CA might become law, including reconciliation proceedings with similar legislation proposed in the House of Representatives. Also uncertain at this stage is how the $120-billion boost to US agencies will be paid for, which Congress will decide.

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