A Bipartisan Vision for the Future of American Science
The National Science Foundation for the Future Act adopts a win-win approach to science and technology policy by linking solutions to the nation’s pressing problems to leadership in research and innovation.
A few weeks ago, I was joined by Science, Space, and Technology Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK), along with Research & Technology Subcommittee Chairwoman Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Ranking Member Michael Waltz (R-FL), in introducing the National Science Foundation for the Future Act (H.R.2225), the first comprehensive reauthorization of NSF since 2010. The bill is the culmination of a year’s effort by members and bipartisan committee staff to gather input and feedback from what may be the largest and most diverse group of stakeholders to ever inform an NSF reauthorization. In the coming weeks, we will hold hearings on the legislation and bring it up for debate and amendment in committee. This process represents the best of what the legislative process should be, and what the scientific community and the larger public should expect of us as legislators taking on big questions about the future of US science and innovation policy.
One big question that we grapple with in the NSF for the Future Act is the very mission of the foundation. NSF was established by Congress in the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 to “promote the progress of science; advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; secure the national defense; and for other purposes.” Building on the ideas presented in Vannevar Bush’s famous 1945 report, Science, the Endless Frontier, NSF was to achieve these goals through investment in unfettered basic research. Industry, other federal agencies, and other potential users would then pick up the results of such research and translate them into commercial and other benefits for society. This model has proven remarkably successful in many ways, but outcomes over the intervening years have not validated the assumption that scientific research carried out in academic laboratories and published in scholarly journals would automatically be translated into use.
Moreover, NSF has a long history of engaging in use-inspired research. The agency created its Engineering Directorate in 1981, not without controversy. That followed a brief experiment in the 1970s with the Research Applied to National Needs (RANN) program, which others have written about in this publication. The Small Business Innovation Research program was a direct outgrowth of RANN. So, too, were the Engineering Research Centers. Today, NSF supports a number of targeted initiatives, such as the Smart and Connected Communities initiative, that bring together researchers with community stakeholders “to identify and define challenges they are facing, enabling those challenges to motivate use-inspired research questions.” The agency has taken some modest steps in translation through programs such as I-Corps. However, the agency to date has not made use-inspired research, and to a larger degree translational research, a strategic priority.
It is no surprise that global competition in science and technology, and in particular competition with China, has emerged as an urgent bipartisan priority. China may have already surpassed the United States in total research and development investments. China has particularly focused on technologies and technology platforms such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, advanced communications, and quantum technologies that are likely to drive innovation and economic growth in the twenty-first century, and in some cases also pose potentially catastrophic national security risks. The Science, Space, and Technology Committee, on a bipartisan basis, has invested significant time and effort in understanding these technologies and the policies that may be necessary to ensure US leadership, and we have developed and enacted legislation to that end, most recently the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act. We will continue these efforts.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, joined by colleagues in both the Senate and House, reintroduced the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), so named to invoke Vannevar Bush’s landmark report. One purpose of this legislation is to create a new Directorate for Technology and Innovation at NSF to accelerate R&D on critical technologies, in large part by adopting some elements of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) model pioneered to great success by the Department of Defense. The stated motivation for EFA, appearing in the very text of the legislation, is global competition. While China is not named in the legislation, it is widely understood to be a leading threat to US economic and national security.
I am grateful to Senator Schumer not just for his strong support of the National Science Foundation, but for making space for a much-needed debate about its future. This is a critically important discussion to be having at such a pivotal time in the nation’s history. Since first hearing about the concept, I took the EFA proposal seriously, but I also believed my committee would need to start from first principles in developing our own bill. We began by asking ourselves, what problem are we trying to solve, and what is the best policy for making meaningful progress? After many months of discussion with dozens of experts and thought leaders, we decided on a somewhat different approach than that taken in EFA.
Andrew Schrank at Brown University, writing in this publication, observes that “competitiveness is neither a necessary nor a sufficient basis for equity, sustainability, or security.” He goes on to write, “China’s industrial policy has improved neither equity nor sustainability. Russia’s economic collapse has done little to erode its national security.” A similar line of thinking on our part motivated us to reframe the conversation around a new Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions at NSF that would focus not on developing technology for its own sake—or for the singular goal of competitiveness—but on advancing solutions that will help make people’s lives healthier and safer, society more equitable, and the globe more resilient to a changing climate and other threats.
Without question, new technologies will contribute to those solutions, but they will not be sufficient. In charting a course for the future of US science and innovation, science policy makers must attend both to the contributions of other areas of research, and to the complicated social and economic aspects of emerging technologies that we have seen so starkly in the rise of the gig economy, and the consequences of pervasive social technologies. I also came to understand that competition with China, while it may be a rallying cry for politicians, is not inspirational to students and scholars eager to use their scientific talent to solve real problems in their own backyards.
That’s why I believe the solutions-driven approach we take in the NSF for the Future Act offers the nation a win-win R&D strategy. Rather than having faith that unfettered research will somehow lead to those innovations needed to solve problems, history teaches that problem-solving can itself drive the innovation that in turn spawns new industries and achieves competitive advantage.
Another factor motivating our approach is the relationship of the new directorate to the rest of NSF. It will be critically important to develop widespread buy-in for any major new activity within the agency, especially one that expands its mission, and to make every effort to integrate it into existing structures. The goal should not be to wall the directorate off from the rest of NSF, but to make it a productive partner with rest of NSF. To achieve that, we must provide the NSF director with sufficient flexibility in how the new directorate is implemented, including the flexibility to learn lessons and adjust over time. There is also a big risk in creating a “shiny new object” that gets the attention of policymakers to the detriment of NSF’s fundamental research mission. I am particularly concerned by the Endless Frontier Act’s authorization of $100 billion over five years just for this new directorate, at an agency currently funded below $9 billion per year, without an overall authorization for NSF and its mission to advance fundamental research across all areas of science and engineering. One of our committee’s first and most important guiding principles was to “do no harm” to NSF’s support for unsolicited fundamental research.
During the committee’s careful process of information gathering, we came to recognize that the DARPA model is not appropriate either for NSF or for what must be the goals of the new directorate. There is no disputing the success of DARPA for DOD and the nation, but NSF is not DOD. A major limitation is that this model strongly favors the top 30 or so research institutions. While there is no denying the research contributions of those institutions, some of which are in my home state of Texas, if as a nation we continue to dismiss the potential contributions and perspectives of 90 percent of our institutions and talent, we will never compete with China, or solve our challenges. Further, since not all solutions are technology driven, not everything can easily be measured in “milestones,” which is central to DARPA’s model. The NSF for the Future Act doesn’t prohibit the agency’s director from trying out the DARPA model, but rather strongly encourages experimentation with diverse, merit-review-based models for funding in order to invite high-risk, high-reward, solutions-oriented proposals from diverse institutions and perspectives.
If we do not reimagine an innovation future that is exponentially more inclusive, we will not lead. In our bill, we conceive of inclusivity broadly—across types of institutions, across demographics, across geographic regions, across fields of scholarship, and across perspectives. Inclusivity also means bringing to the table stakeholders who might not otherwise have a direct line to researchers, and vice-versa, as NSF has done with its Smart and Connected Communities initiative. The potential users of the research, and those who might be affected by it, must have a say in both defining the nature of the challenges and helping to chart a research agenda that is designed from the outset to maximize benefit and minimize harm. We must see all such partners and stakeholders as essential, not politically expedient.
NSF-funded scientists should still be encouraged to pursue their best, most creative, and highest-risk ideas. But we know from the history of science and innovation that such ideas may be inspired by the desire to meet societal challenges and solve real-world problems. The pursuit of knowledge and curiosity are not mutually exclusive with the quest to solve grand challenges or to translate research results into use.
Finally, I should note that I have not discussed the many other important research, education, and research integrity initiatives and priorities in our NSF for the Future Act. I remain committed to moving a comprehensive NSF reauthorization that assures the agency’s fullest benefits. Even as we create something new, we must support and grow NSF overall and put it on a sustainable path forward. I have tried here to lay out some of the motivations for the approach we took in writing the NSF for the Future Act, and in doing so have outlined my concerns with the approach taken in the Endless Frontier Act. However, my colleagues and I in both houses of Congress, and on both sides of the aisle, share the important overarching goal of ensuring that our government remains committed to the nation’s leadership in science and innovation and the myriad benefits such leadership brings to society and to the world. I look forward to continuing our discussions with the stakeholder community, my congressional colleagues, and with the Biden administration on the best policies to achieve this shared goal.