New Legislation Proposes Major Reorganization of NSF

Last week, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the Democratic Leader in the Senate, introduced bipartisan legislation that would authorize $100 billion in new funding for the National Science Foundation and make the agency responsible for maintaining the country’s global leadership in innovation. The bill, called S. 3832 “The Endless Frontier Act,” proposes a major reorganization of NSF and possibly a significant change to the culture of the agency.

The legislation proposes several changes to NSF. The first big change, though it’s functionally the smallest, is the change of NSF’s name to the “National Science and Technology Foundation.” Within that, it establishes a new “Directorate of Technology” to, “advance innovation in the key technology focus areas through fundamental research and other activities…and…develop and implement strategies to ensure that the activities of the Directorate are directed toward the key technology focus areas.”

Those “key technology focus areas” are spelled out and CS/IT is heavily represented. The initial listing is:

– artificial intelligence and machine learning;
– high performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware;
– quantum computing and information systems;
– robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing;
– natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention;
– advanced communications technology;
– biotechnology, genomics, and synthetic biology;
– cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies;
– advanced energy; and
– materials science, engineering, and exploration relevant to the other key technology focus areas.

The directorate would have to undergo a review of these areas every four years, when they can be removed, added, or changed. However, there can be no more than ten such focus areas at any time.

In terms of operations, the bill would require that the program managers within this new directorate to operate like their equivalents at DARPA:

“The employees of the Directorate may include program managers for the key technology focus areas, who shall perform a role similar to programs managers employed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for the oversight and selection of programs supported by the Directorate.”

Additionally, the new directorate would have the authority to hire experts on short-term assignments, again similar to the way the DARPA functions. Science Magazine has a good breakdown on potential benefits and costs of this culture shift (the article also has both praise and skepticism of the legislation from the higher-ed and research communities).

With regard to funding, the bill authorizes $100B for the new directorate. Starting at $2B in Fiscal Year 2021 and increasing to $35B for Fiscal Year 2025. The new directorate is supposed to work with the other NSF directorates, and other federal research agencies, to further progress in these focus areas; for example, the directorate is specifically authorized to move funding to any of the other directorates, but the reverse is specifically prohibited.

There are other sections of the bill, dealing with other areas of the nation’s R&D ecosystem. The fourth section of the bill deals with redesigning the Department of Commerce’s Regional Technology Hub program for the purposes of, “accelerating the commercialization of research; strengthening the competitive position of industry through the development, commercial adoption, or deployment of technology; and providing financial grants, loans, or direct financial investment to commercialize technology.’’ It authorizes $10 billion for this program. And the fifth section requires OSTP, in coordination with the Directors of NSF and National Economic Council, Secretary of Commerce, the National Security Council, among others, to write a report to:

“review such strategy, programs, and resources as the Director of the (OSTP) determines pertain to United States national competitiveness in science, research, and innovation to support the national security strategy;

As well, that report then informs a national strategy to:

“develop a strategy for the Federal Government to improve the national competitiveness of the United States in science, research, and innovation to support the national security strategy.”

Some things to keep in mind with this legislation. First, this is an authorizing (or policy) bill, not an appropriations bill; meaning that if it were to become law, funding is not a given. From what we have heard there have been no discussions with appropriators about this legislation. However, it is a bill sponsored by the Democratic Leader of the Senate; that alone gives it potential legs. It is also a bipartisan sponsored bill, a rarity these days.

But how likely is it to become law? It’s hard to say right now. While there is a version of this bill that has been introduced in the House, it’s not clear it will get a hearing by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which has jurisdiction. There have also been concerns about NSF being able to use such a large infusion of funds. On a more practical level, and as we’ve noted before, Congress is still working on responding to the pandemic and it is unlikely to take up other issues soon. That could change quickly though, as Senator Schumer could attach this to a piece of must-pass legislation; one potential scenario is attaching it to the Defense policy bill, legislation that is typically passed every year.

On a very high level, this legislation is quite good. It shows that NSF has the confidence of key members of Congress and that it is well positioned to help lead the country’s innovation strategy. A $100 billion infusion of new research funding is also quite good. However, there are potential concerns about what will happen to NSF with such a large reorganization and potential culture change; will that be for good or ill? This legislation, and similar proposals, is likely to be around for a while, so please keep checking back for more updates and developments.

New Legislation Proposes Major Reorganization of NSF