This article is published in the March 2024 issue.

House Science Committee Examines How Federal Science Agencies Can Harness Artificial Intelligence to Drive Scientific Discoveries

By Brian Mosley, Associate Director, Government Affairs

On February 6th the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing, titled Federal Science Agencies and the Promise of AI in Driving Scientific Discoveries, to look at, “how federal science agencies can further harness artificial intelligence (AI) to drive discoveries in new scientific domains and pursue leading-edge AI research.” The committee heard from several witnesses from government, academia, and industry about the state of access to AI research resources for researchers in the US and how industry can partner in this effort. It was a chance for the committee to look at the newly launched National AI Research Resource (NAIRR) pilot program at NSF, as well as what the Department of Energy’s National Labs are doing with regard to AI.

This hearing was jointly held by the House Science Committee’s subcommittees on Research & Technology and Energy. The Research & Technology Subcommittee Chairman, Rep. Collins (R-GA), called the hearing to order and pointed out the widening, “gap between Big Tech, academic AI researchers, and entrepreneurs.” He further made the point that, “facilitating public-private partnerships can help narrow this gap and efficiently maximize the development and use of responsible AI systems.” Energy Subcommittee Chairman Brandon Williams (R-NY) spoke about the untapped potential of AI and the important role that federal government and the research agencies play in helping to develop the field. Chairman Williams said, “these AI-enabled discovery could be transformational to Energy, Medicine, and Materials. Similarly, the federal government has tools, like high performance computing resources, that are unique and powerful for creating AI generated algorithms from this remarkable data.” Finally, the full Science Committee Chairman, Frank Lucas (R-OK), spoke about the, “three critical components in the formula for successful AI innovation: access to a skilled workforce, access to computing power, and access to data,” and how the federal science agencies play an important role in all three areas.

Following the opening statements from the majority party, the Ranking Members of the minority side delivered their remarks. Research & Technology Ranking Member Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI) focused on the workforce development side of the question, saying the country needs, “a skilled workforce that can apply AI technologies responsibly to our national and community needs,” which will require, “hands-on learning opportunities to all types of students and workers across sectors, including those who want to upskill and apply new uses of AI in their current jobs.” Energy Subcommittee Ranking Member Jamaal Bowman’s (D-NY) opening statement also focused on workforce needs, saying the country needs, “a skilled and diverse workforce to maintain the vitality of DOE’s scientific computing ecosystem long into the future.” Rep. Bowman also made the point about the needs to develop AI capabilities, “responsibly and ethically,” making the further point that, “(as AI) becomes more commonplace…we must ensure that its fundamental algorithms are designed to protect people’s privacy and eradicate bias.” Finally, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Ranking Member of the full committee, used her opening remarks to point out the need of the Federal investment in this space. She said to, “achieve the promise of AI for societal benefit – and develop effective guardrails against harm – talented and passionate researchers, startups, and students from across the nation will need access to the kind of computational and data resources that are currently available to only a few.”

The witnesses represented views from government, industry, and the academic research communities, and demonstrated what their respective areas brought to the table. Tess DeBlanc Knowles, Special Assistant to the Director for Artificial Intelligence at NSF, spoke about what the Foundation is doing to provide resources for the AI researcher community and focused heavily on the NSF’s pilot of the NAIRR program. Dr. Georgia Tourassi, Associate Laboratory Director for Computing and Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, spoke about what DOE is doing and the hardware resources it is providing in the AI research space. Dr. Chaouki Abdallah, Executive Vice President for Research at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Dr. Louay Chamra, Dean of the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Oakland University, provided a research institution perspective but from different sides of the issue; Dr. Abdallah from a R1 school, while Dr. Chamra is from a smaller research institution. Finally, Jack Clark, co-founder and Head of Policy at Anthropic, provided a viewpoint from industry and why they are interested in the Federal Government’s investment in AI infrastructure.

The hearing was well attended by committee members with engaging questions for the witnesses. Generally speaking, the Republican members of the committee focused on understanding why the Federal Government’s investment is needed, particularly by industry. They also were concerned about the security of the nation’s AI resources and that they do not become compromised by bad actors, such as hackers or foreign agents. On the Democrat side of the committee, many of the questions focused on ensuring the democratization of the nation’s AI resources, wanting to ensure that a select few companies will not be the only ones who benefit. However, on both side of the aisle, the committee’s membership expressed support for NSF’s NAIRR program, viewing it as a vital tool to ensure the nation’s competitive position with AI globally.

This was the first hearing in 2024 on the topic of AI by the House Science Committee; it is likely not the last. Artificial intelligence is still a hot topic within Congress, with many efforts underway in both chambers. CRA will continue to monitor this subject for developments and will report them out to the research community; please be sure to check back for the latest updates.