Computing Research Policy Blog
As we’ve noted previously, President Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan includes some pretty large proposed investments in R&D — on the order of $180 billion over the eight years of the plan. But that’s not the only aspect of the plan that might be relevant to computing researchers. Also included is a $400 billion investment in the “Caretaking Economy” targeted at home and community-based care for elderly and disabled people. On the new CCC Catalyzing Computing podcast, join host Khari Douglas as he talks with CCC Council member Dr. Katie Siek from Indiana University about her work on some of the aging-in-place technologies that will become an increasingly important part of the caretaking economy in the years ahead.
This week, in four different Congressional hearings, members of Congress got their first chance to weigh in on the multiple proposed changes to the National Science Foundation. Two of these hearings were with Congressional appropriators and concerned President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2022 “skinny” budget request that was released last week. The other two hearings were with the science authorizing committees – the House Science, Space and Technology Committee convened Thursday to consider “Reimagining our Innovation Future,” including some discussion of their newly introduced National Science Foundation for the Future Act, and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee covered the yet to be reintroduced Endless Frontier Act from Senators Schumer (D-NY) and Young (R-IN). The good news is the initial reactions were mostly positive. However, there are concerns by some members about NSF’s ability to handle a large infusion of funds and whether it’s the right agency to secure the country’s competitiveness.
Before the Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee on Tuesday, and then its House counterpart on Wednesday, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan defended the Administration’s budget request, a 20 percent increase for the agency, and made the case that, “under the administration’s…budget request, NSF will supercharge investments and work collaboratively with our federal counterparts and other partners to rapidly catalyze results in areas of national importance.”
Many of the questions that Dr. Panchanathan responded to concerned whether NSF could handle such a large increase of its budget. He made the case that NSF is not able to currently fund all of the proposals that it deems to be of high merit. As Science Magazine pointed out:
He told Senate appropriators that NSF would use the money to make more grants and expand their size and duration. Specifically, he said, the average grant would grow from $200,000 to $300,000 and from 3 years to 4 or 5 years. The percentage of submitted proposals accepted by the agency would rise from about 20% to 30% or higher, allowing NSF to fund billions of dollars of ideas that under current funding constraints are deemed worthy of support but rejected.
“It’s only 50% of what we could fund,” Panchanathan told the counterpart House spending panel the next day. “And we don’t want to leave those ideas on the floor because they might be picked up by our competitors.”
In a separate effort before the Senate Commerce Committee, the proposals within the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), which has not yet been introduced but is highly-anticipated, were discussed. Because of lack of legislative text, the hearing didn’t delve into specifics of the proposal. However, as in the Appropriation hearings, Members of Congress voiced general support for NSF but raised concerns about whether NSF can handle these new funds and if it’s the right agency for this mission. Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, former director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the previous administration, and one of the witnesses called by the committee, made the point that “NSF funding is a national imperative” and that the Foundation has been underfunded for decades. All the witnesses voiced strong support that NSF is well positioned to use the proposed increases and to do more.
On the House side, the Science, Space and Technology Committee chaired by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) convened to discuss how to ensure continued U.S. leadership in science and technology, as well as how to harness the U.S. research enterprise and all of the nation’s talent to develop solutions to the nation’s most pressing challenges. A panel that included former CRA Board Member and current President of Carnegie Mellon University Farnam Jahanian, along with former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, current PCAST co-chair nominee Frances Arnold, and former Chairman of Lockheed Martin Norm Augustine, all made the case that the U.S. research ecosystem remains the envy of the world, but sustained Federal investments are necessary to ensure we don’t cede that leadership to countries – particularly China – who are ramping up their own investments considerably to compete. Members on the committee seemed to acknowledge that need and express support for efforts like the NSF for the Future Act and Ranking Member Frank Lucas’ (R-OK) Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act, which would also authorize NSF on a path to doubling its budget.
What happens now? This process will need to play out more before we have an any good answers. From the sound of it, Congressional appropriators are supportive of increasing NSF’s funding. How much of an increase — the 20 percent the President is proposing, or less — is an open question. And there remains some skepticism among some members about proposals to establish a technology development directorate within NSF, but also a fair amount of support. The devil is in the details, of course, which both the President’s skinny budget and the to-be-reintroduced EFA don’t yet provide. Once more details are released, the debate will continue, and we’ll have a better idea of which proposals have more support and how things will play out. This is a process that could take the better part of the year (or more), so please check back for more updates.
Earlier today the Biden Administration released a high-level overview of their discretionary budget request for Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22). Nicknamed a “skinny budget,” due to the fact that it only contains topline numbers for key departments and agencies and does not have many details on specific program requests, it does provide a look into the priorities of the new Administration. And from what we see in this request, research agencies across the federal government will do quite well under the Biden Administration’s plan.
In one bullet titled, “Renews America’s Commitment to Research and Development,” the Administration says their budget request, “proposes historic increases in funding for foundational research and development across a range of scientific agencies—including the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Energy (DOE), NIST, and others—to help spur innovation across the economy and renew America’s global leadership.” Let’s get into some of the details of the request.
National Science Foundation – Topline $10.2 billion, an increase of $1.7 billion or 19.8 percent over FY21 levels. In a change of pace from recent years budget requests, NSF is the big winner among the science agencies. Within the 19.8 percent increase for the Foundation, the research and education accounts together will increase by $1.6 billion over FY21 levels. Specific levels for Research & Related Activities and Education & Human Resources aren’t given in the overview, so a more detailed comparison isn’t possible at the moment. The document goes on to explain that a number of education accounts will see increases as well, particularly those geared toward expanding diversity and equity among the scientific disciplines.
Additionally, the document calls for the establishment of a new directorate for, “technology, innovation, and partnerships … to expedite technology development in emerging areas that are crucial for U.S. technological leadership, including artificial intelligence, high performance computing, disaster response and resilience, quantum information systems, robotics, advanced communications technologies, biotechnology, and cybersecurity.” This is obviously in line with the current proposals under consideration in the House and Senate, not to mention the President’s own infrastructure plan.
Department of Energy, Office of Science – Topline $7.4 billion, an increase of $400 million or 5.3 percent over FY21 levels. No specific details for ARPA-E, but it is mentioned together with ARPA-Climate to receive a total of $1 billion (ARPA-E received $427 million in FY21).
National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) – No topline for the agency, but the Scientific and Technical Research and Services (STRS), where the majority of the research at the agency is housed, would receive $916 million, an increase of $128 million or 16.2 percent (STRS isn’t mentioned by name though). There are also a number of programs at NIST called out in the proposal, “to ensure the security and resilience of the Nation’s supply chain and foster a robust resurgence of American manufacturing,” and a specific proposal about, “restoring the United States as a global leader in the design and manufacture of semiconductors,” among other program details.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) – The second biggest winner among the science accounts, NIH would receive $51 billion, an increase of $8.1 billion, or 18.8 percent, over FY21. Within that increase, the proposal calls for the establishment of an ARPA-H to spur innovation and, “would drive transformational innovation in health research and speed application and implementation of health breakthroughs.” ARPA-H, modeled after DARPA at the Defense Department and ARPA-E at the Department of Energy, would receive $6.5 billion under the President’s plan.
Department of Defense (DOD) – Unfortunately, no details are provided for the defense research accounts. The document does provide a topline for the Defense Department: $715 billion, an increase of 1.6 percent over FY21 levels. That translates into either flat funding or an effective cut. There is a nice paragraph on the importance of R&D at DOD but no specifics. With flat funding, it’s likely we’ll see the department try to protect their highest priorities, which could translate into cuts in the research accounts. Time will tell.
NASA – Topline $24.7 billion, an increase of $1.5 billion or 6.3 percent over FY21 levels. There are a number of scientific and engineering missions called out in the budget document, but no specific breakdown of budget numbers below the top line. Still, this is likely to translate into some type of increase for the NASA Science budget line.
What happens now? We have to wait several more weeks for the Administration to get their detailed budget request out. That’s expected sometime in May, though it could slip later. In the meantime, Congress is likely to use this skinny budget to start the process of crafting their own proposals for these agencies and departments. Due to the late start, mainly caused by the change in Administrations, this is likely to be a long year for the federal budget process. But we’ll be keeping track and will report back any developments, so please check back for more information.
Late last month, the Chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), joined by the Committee’s Ranking Member, Frank Lucas (R-OK), as well as the Research and Technology Subcommittee Chairwoman and Ranking Member, Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Michael Waltz (R-FL), introduced H.R. 2225, “The National Science Foundation for the Future Act.” This legislation, which is a reauthorization of the agency, lays out their vision of the Foundation’s future, and it’s fairly audacious.
Beginning with funding authorization levels, the bill is bold. It would authorize $11.5 billion for the agency in Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22), an increase of about 35 percent over NSF’s FY21 level of $8.49 billion. The legislation would continue the increases to the agency over four years with an average annual rate of 6 percent growth, topping out at over $16 billion by FY25; that would set a target of doubling the agency’s current budget over the five years of the legislation. It’s worth pointing out this is an authorization, or policy, bill, not appropriations; meaning that these numbers are more aspirational, and don’t guarantee these funding levels should the bill be passed into law. Even with that in mind, these numbers show quite a show of confidence in NSF from Congress.
In addition to the funding authorization levels, the bill establishes a new directorate within the Research & Related Activities account, which hosts NSF’s research portfolio. Called the “Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions” (SES), it will, “accelerate the translation of Foundation-supported fundamental research and…advance technologies, support use-inspired research, facilitate commercialization and use of Federally funded research, and expand the pipeline of US students and researchers in areas of societal and national importance.” If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s similar to the new directorate in Senator Schumer’s Endless Frontier Act. SES would also take over the management of the Convergence Accelerator and the Growing Convergence Research Big Idea, absorbing NSF’s current efforts into its operations.
Additionally, SES would have six focus areas to direct its efforts; while again similar to the Schumer proposal, here they are more broad topics and societal problems, rather than research subjects or technologies. The areas laid out are:
- Climate change and environmental sustainability
- Global competitiveness in critical technologies
- National security
- STEM education and workforce
- Social and economic inequality
In terms of funding, the directorate would be authorized at $1 billion in fiscal year 2022; it would then see an increase of 50% every year, topping out at $5 billion in fiscal year 2026.
The bill also has sections devoted to STEM Education (Sec 5); Broadening Participation (Sec 6), and Fundamental Research (Sec. 7). That last section is quite broad, with subsections including research and security, broader impacts, research integrity, and ethics in research. Check out this section-by-section breakdown for an easy summary of the bill’s contents.
All in all, to have broad bipartisan support for a bill that calls for the doubling of NSF in five years is a clear indication of how important both parties view NSF’s role to keep the country at the cutting edge, especially in the face of growing international research efforts. And taken with President Biden’s recently announced American Jobs Plan, and the expected reintroduction of Senator Schumer’s Endless Frontier Act any day now, it’s great to see the nation’s leaders rising to the challenge with daring proposals. This is just the beginning of a long process that is likely to take the rest of the year; please check back for updates.
PS: If all these bills and plans are difficult to keep track, we have a handy visual cheat sheet that has the major points of all three proposals.
Last Wednesday, President Biden unveiled the first details of his administration’s infrastructure investment plan. Named “the American Jobs Plan,” it is a proposal to invest $2 trillion over a decade in American infrastructure, “that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China.” In a show of trust in the country’s research community, investments in scientific research and infrastructure are featured in the plan.
The most significant research piece of the plan is $50 billion to the National Science Foundation to create, “a technology directorate that will collaborate with and build on existing programs across the government.” If a “technology directorate” sounds familiar, that’s because it is the main feature of Senator Schumer’s (D-NY) Endless Frontier Act which was introduced a year ago. The idea behind such an addition to NSF is that a technology development effort is needed for the country to better capitalize on its fundamental research into key industries of the future, such as AI and quantum. There are no further details in the President’s plan for this new directorate but it’s likely this part of the AJP will be taken up by Senator Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader.
In addition to the new NSF directorate, President Biden’s plan also calls on Congress to provide $30 billion in additional funding for, “R&D that spurs innovation and job creation, including in rural areas.” As well, the proposal also calls to invest $40 billion more in, “upgrading research infrastructure in laboratories across the country, including brick-and-mortar facilities and computing capabilities and networks.”
This all sounds great, but what’s the catch? Unfortunately, the American Jobs Plan is no more than a Fact Sheet right now, with only top line numbers and no specifics. As well, these investments don’t have a timeframe attached to them; are they over ten years? Five years? One lump investment? While it’s likely over 10 years, we don’t know for sure yet because of the lack of details. We are expecting this infrastructure plan to be taken up by Congress over the summer, so we could see details in the May timeframe; but that is an educated guess at the moment.
The other issue of concern is the plan’s prospects in Congress. After the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion COVID relief legislation, it’s unclear if there is enough support in a closely divided Congress to spend even more money. Tempering expectations seems to be a wise course of action.
All the same, this is a great show of confidence in the nation’s research community. And it is grounds for some optimism that the country’s leadership sees the benefits of more investments in research. Hopefully, at a minimum, some of this plan will be passed into law. We will be keeping track of this, and other pieces of legislation, and will report back when we know more; please check back for updates.
Earlier today, the House of Representatives passed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the $1.9 trillion bill that is meant to provide additional relief to the country to address the impacts of the ongoing COVID pandemic. As the Senate approved the measure on Saturday, the bill now heads to President Biden for signing into law; he is expected to sign it on Friday (UPDATE: President Biden signed the bill on Thursday March 11th instead).
As we reported before, included in the bill are funds for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards & Technology. These emergency, one-time, funds ($600 millions for NSF and $150 million for NIST) are for funding research, “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.”
The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a congressionally-chartered committee charged with reviewing AI and related technologies and making recommendations to address U.S. national security and defense needs, today released its final report, endorsing significant new investments in AI research, strategies for building the AI workforce, and guidance for using AI in warfare while upholding U.S. democratic values. The report is likely to inform policy activity around defense-related AI issues in Congress and at the Department of Defense over the next months and years.
The commission, led by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and vice chair former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, spent two years producing the report after being chartered in August 2018 as part of the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
The report is organized around two themes: “Defending America in the AI Era,” with a focus on understanding current and future threats around AI; and “Winning the Technology Competition,” with a focus on how to optimize the research ecosystem to ensure U.S. leadership in AI and related technologies.
The report starts with the premise that AI is already ubiquitous, that it is a quintessentially “dual-use” technology with clear military applications, and that it will transform all aspects of military affairs and intelligence for the U.S. and for its allies and adversaries. The commissioners make the case for a Department of Defense led effort to develop AI-enabled autonomous weapons systems in part because they assert that our adversaries are likely to deploy them and “defending against AI-capable adversaries without employing AI is an invitation to disaster.” The commissioners believe DOD needs to have infrastructure to support AI in place by 2025, an admittedly ambitious goal, or risk losing its leadership position.
In considering the technology competition, the commissioners note that “AI will be leveraged to advance all dimensions of national power from healthcare to food production to environmental sustainability” and that the adoption of AI will “drive economies, shape societies, and determine which states exert influence and exercise power in the world.” The clear threat in this calculation, the report notes, is China, which it describes as “an AI peer” and more technologically advanced in some applications. The U.S. innovation ecosystem has been remarkably productive, the commissioners argue, but we are at a disadvantage in AI because we lack the large state-led investments and strategies we see in China. University research, the private sector, and an innovation culture that is bottom-up will still be key drivers of AI progress in the U.S. But the report argues that even the largest U.S. tech firms can’t compete with the resources provided by China and that the U.S. needs a better effort “meshing government and private sector efforts to win.” The report calls on DOD to commit to spending at least 3.4 percent of its budget on Science and Technology (it’s currently 2.3 percent), and “allocate at least $8 billion toward AI R&D annually.”
Besides significant new investments in fundamental research and AI development, the report also calls for the creation of a new agency — a National Technology Foundation — to help meet the goal of moving emerging technologies like AI from foundational research through the more applied “valley of death” to commercialization or deployment. This adds to the chorus of voices in DC, like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) who introduced an act last Congress that would add $100 billion in funding over five years to the National Science Foundation to give it a new “technology development” mission and rename it the National Science and Technology Foundation; and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which is considering proposals to add a new Technology Directorate to NSF’s Research and Related Activities account. The commitment to greater investment in these emerging areas of technology is welcome and laudable. But with it should come the caution that the details are incredibly important and that understanding the ways in which these new foci could skew our already extraordinarily productive research and innovation ecosystem is a necessity, particularly concerning open and unrestricted basic research.
CRA and its Computing Community Consortium — which has spent much of the last three years focused on AI research issues, both through the facilitation of a community-led 20 year AI Research Roadmap, and the production of a tranche of whitepapers on AI policy and research topics — engaged with the NSCAI on many occasions over the commissions 2+ years of work. The report, in general — and especially where it references research needs and articulates research as a priority for investment — clearly reflects that input, and we find it strong and commendable. The report rightly highlights the key importance of increased federal investments in fundamental research. In a focus on federal approaches to bringing emerging technologies closer to commercialization or deployment, we can’t afford to lose the support for the fundamental research enabling those technologies (and many others we don’t yet know about).
We also appreciate that the report does devote significant consideration to the importance of the DOD’s continued respect for and protection of civil liberties, privacy, and democratic values — and the importance of American leadership in advancing those values through the technologies we deploy. While the report does appropriately bring focus on ethical use of AI in context of autonomous weapons systems, it is vital that the focus persists in all implementations of the recommendations. Emphasis on ethical AI needs to persist in lifelong learning and research, transition, adoption, or innovation initiatives throughout all of national security interests — from enterprise software systems to platforms and intelligence. Also, we note that thoughtful, tech-savvy people inside and outside DOD, the Administration, and the Congress must be involved in the implementation of recommendations and the thinking, planning, and operationalizing of these deployments.
From the perspective of the research community, throughout the report there may also be an over-estimation of AI robustness and a lack of appreciation that much of AI doesn’t currently work or can’t be held accountable; quantification of uncertainty is still a very challenging technical problem. This theme is consistent across domains of warfare and intelligence.
The report does a commendable job of noting the importance of recruitment of strong AI talent. We agree that ensuring broad computing literacy and a healthy pipeline of K-12 students with solid STEM educations is at least as important. As Mignon Clyburn, an NSCAI Commissioner noted in a recent public plenary, “educate the workforce and the peopleforce to uplift all of us.” Additionally, an over-focus on “top AI talent” by funding agencies can be a detriment to national security — continued reliance on the same cohort of people can lead to blindspots. Ensuring a diversity of performers can help ensure a diversity of possible solutions to DOD problems. Broadening the definition of what “top AI talent” is and that it is not only limited to a few top tier research universities and could come from less traditional training (such as community college pathways or specialized military training) addresses this.
With the release of the report the commission has fulfilled its purpose and will expire October 1, 2021, unless Congress seeks to engage it in further work and extends its term. In the intervening months, we should expect Congress begin to act on some of the recommendations in the report through legislation (likely as part of the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act), and see the DOD begin to operationalize some of the guidance from the report. The report will serve as an excellent buttress for many of the policy goals CRA will be advocating for in the coming months and years — particularly in helping us argue the critical importance of the federal investment in fundamental research in computing. We’ll keep you updated on progress here….
In a piece written by Jeffrey Mervis at Science, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are expected to receive emergency funding as part of the COVID relief bill that is moving through Congress. Specifically, NSF would receive $650 million and NIST $150 million in a one-time budget allocations from the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Both agencies would be required to use the funds to help the nation, and specifically the science research community, recover from the impacts of the pandemic, as per the terms of the overall relief package. According to Mervis, the money for NSF is, “likely to be spent on more research on pandemic-related topics, as well as more support for educating the next generation of scientists and engineers,” while, “the funds for NIST…are expected to bolster its network of manufacturing research institutes.” While a far cry from the $26 billion that the higher education community is seeking in emergency relief, this money will be much needed help for the country’s research community. We’ll be watching the relief package as it makes its way through Congress; the expectation is that the bill will come up for a final vote some time in early-to-mid March. Please keep checking back for updates.
On Friday, the “Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act” was reintroduced in both the House and Senate. The RISE Act authorizes nearly $25 billion in relief for research workforce and institutions at American institutes of higher education. As stated in Senator Markey’s press release, “the people who comprise the research workforce – graduate students, postdocs, principal investigators, and technical support staff – face financial and other hardships from the disruption of their research activities. The RISE Act will provide necessary relief to preserve the current scientific workforce and ensure that the United States is prepared to continue our global scientific leadership once this crisis ends”
The bills were reintroduced by Senators Markey (D-MA), Tillis (R-NC), Peters (D-MI), and Collins (R-ME) in the Senate; and Representatives DeGette (CO-01), Upton (MI-06), Johnson (TX-30), Eshoo (CA-18) and Gonzalez (OH-16) in the House of Representatives.
Originally introduced in the 116th Congress in the Fall of 2020, the bill never received a vote in the full Senate; however, it was marked up favorably by the Senate Commerce Committee. On the House side, the bill did not progress beyond the committee level. The RISE Act is the higher education community’s main effort to attain some form of federal relief for the research institutions that have been disrupted due to the pandemic. CRA endorsed the bill in 2020 and will endorse the reintroduced bill as well.
The Computing Research Association commends President-elect Biden for his announcement today that the Presidential Science Advisor will be a member of the Cabinet for the first time in history. We applaud his commitment that “science will always be at the forefront” of his administration, and we look forward to working with the highly talented and qualified team of advisors he named today. We are confident they will contribute a strong scientific voice to the myriad challenges facing our country.
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