Senator Schumer Reintroduces Endless Frontier Act, Latest Proposal for Major Reorganization of the National Science Foundation

Yesterday, Senator Schumer (D-NY), the Senate Majority Leader, along with Senator Young (R-IN) and a bipartisan group of 10 other Senators, reintroduced the Endless Frontier Act, 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. There is also a bipartisan version introduced in the House. Regular readers will recall that this bill was introduced last year and its reintroduction has been anticipated.

There are several differences between this bill and what was introduced a year ago. One notable difference is that it no longer stipulates a change to NSF’s name. Another is that this is not a straight reauthorization of NSF; it is much broader and can likely be filed under a “national competitiveness” heading. There are several sections on NIST and the Department of Commerce, on such topics as Supply Chain Resiliency, Regional Technology Hubs, and a Manufacturing USA program (some of this, but not all, was in last year’s bill).

However, the core of last year’s proposal is back with some meaningful tweaks. It again proposes a new technology development directorate, now named the “Directorate of Technology and Innovation.” And it still would require the Program Managers and experts of the new directorate to operate like their counterparts at DARPA. And the key technology focus areas are back, though slightly broadened in some area:

(i) artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other software advances;
(ii) high performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware;
(iii) quantum computing and information systems;
(iv) robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing;
(v) natural and anthropogenic disaster prevention or mitigation;
(vi) advanced communications technology;
(vii) biotechnology, genomics, and synthetic biology;
(viii) cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies;
(ix) advanced energy, batteries, and industrial efficiency;
(x) advanced materials science, engineering, and exploration relevant to the other key technology focus areas;

The legislation still requires that there only be ten focus areas at any one time, and they can be changed every three years. It’s unclear where the new directorate will reside in NSF; the text appears to give discretion to the NSF Director to determine this.

A new change is the funding authorization in the bill. In Section 4, it establishes a $112.41 billion fund over five years, dubbed the “Endless Frontier Fund.” The bill empowers the Director of the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) with budget authority to administer the fund. Additionally, the bill stipulates that $100 billion of this fund goes to NSF for the new directorate; it would then be authorized for each of the five years as follows:

$5B for Fiscal Year 2022
$10B for Fiscal Year 2023
$20B for Fiscal Year 2024
$30B for Fiscal Year 2025
$35B for Fiscal Year 2026

There is an additional $9.425 billion authorized for NIST and the regional technology hub program, $575 million for the “comprehensive regional technology strategy grant program,” and $2.41 billion for a new Manufacturing USA Program.

What exactly is this new directorate supposed to fund? The legislation is pretty specific, with 35 percent of funds to go to a “University Technology Centers” program; 15 percent to scholarships, fellowships, and other student support, including not fewer than 1,000 postdoctoral fellowships, 2,000 graduate fellowships and traineeships, and 1,000 undergraduate scholarships in the key technology focus areas; 5 percent to a “Moving Technology from Laboratory to Market” program; 10 percent to a “Test Beds” program; 15 percent for, “research and related activities in cross-directorate awards;” and 20 percent for research in the key technology focus areas.

The legislation also makes it much more explicit that the new directorate should work with other Federal research agencies, specifically calling out the Department of Energy, the National Labs, and NIST. While this has always been an understood function of the new directorate, it seems the bill’s authors wanted to make it clearer as to how it should work across the Federal agencies for a whole-of-government approach to innovation.

While this all appears to represent a huge potential increase to NSF, keep in mind that this is an authorizing (or policy) bill, not an appropriations bill. That means that if it were to become law, funding is not a given, and NSF would still have to get funding through the appropriations process. Still, this again 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.

But how does this fit in with the House Science Committee’s recent bill? And President Biden’s recently announced infrastructure plan and skinny budget? Put simply, we don’t know. These are competing visions for NSF’s future and the differences will have to be hammered out through the legislative process before anything becomes law. But the fact that this is bipartisan legislation, originating in the Senate, gives the whole effort a good chance at success. The first real indication will be a Senate Commerce Committee mark-up of this legislation expected to be scheduled for next week. So we will have to see how this process plays out; be sure to keep checking back for updates.

PS: Again, if you’re having trouble keeping all these proposals straight, here’s a handy visual cheat sheet.

Update 4/28: The EFA bill has been pulled from the April 28th Senate Commerce Committee hearing due to a large number of amendments that were offered by committee members (we have heard over 200). That is usually a sign of the current bill not having consensus to pass as written. The assumption is there will be behind the scenes negotiations to come up with new language that can address some of the concerns raised by the amendments and would make the bill more likely to pass with bipartisan support. This moves consideration of EFA to the middle of May, at the earliest, though further delays are possible. This situation is still highly fluid, so keep checking back for updates.

Senator Schumer Reintroduces Endless Frontier Act, Latest Proposal for Major Reorganization of the National Science Foundation