Bonus Episode! A Historic Opportunity for US Innovation
This summer, Congress is trying to reconcile the differences between two massive bills focused on strengthening US competitiveness and spurring innovation: the House-passed America COMPETES Act and the Senate-passed United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) legislation. In this episode, we speak with Mitch Ambrose from FYI, the American Institute of Physics’ science policy news service, about the historic conference aimed at negotiating the House and Senate bills. What are the competing visions for US competitiveness in the bills? How do the details get worked out, and what happens if Congress fails to reach an agreement?
- Follow FYI’s coverage and subscribe to their newsletters at https://www.aip.org/fyi
Josh Trapani: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University. I’m Josh Trapani, senior editor at Issues. Today, I’m joined by Mitch Ambrose from the American Institute of Physics’ Science Policy News Service, called FYI, whose newsletters and tools for tracking science policy budgets and legislation are key assets to the science policy community.
On this episode, I’ll talk with Mitch about the ongoing conference of members of Congress to reconcile differences between the Senate-passed USICA Act and the House-passed COMPETES Act, which he and FYI have been tracking closely. These acts both passed with bipartisan support are aimed at increasing American technological and industrial competitiveness, but have key differences which have led to a long reconciliation process. Welcome Mitch, we’re happy to have you back with us.
Mitch Ambrose: Great to be here.
Trapani: So each of these pieces of legislation, the Senate-passed United States Innovation and Competition Act, or USICA, and the House-passed America Creating Opportunities, Preeminence in Technology and Economic Strength Act, or the COMPETES Act, are thousands of pages long. And there are quite a number of differences between them. Senator Maria Cantwell, who is the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee in her opening statement called the conference historic because it’s one of the largest conference committees in the last 10 years for a bill that is not annual must-pass legislation. So clearly what’s going on is a big deal. But before we start getting into more detail, I just wanted to start with a bigger question: you’ve been paying close attention to the conference and everything that’s been leading up to it. Has there been anything about this that’s really surprised you so far?
Ambrose: Yeah. It’s been quite a fascinating story to follow these last few years, and it really starts way back in November of 2019 when the then minority leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, he floated this idea of really ramping up investment in science technology, specifically through adding a new arm to the National Science Foundation that started with this thing called the Endless Frontier Act. And it has been a very long and winding road since then. And these bills have grown, as you said, thousands of pages long, and they’ve come to encompass most policy areas, I would say. Not quite all, but it’s just touched so many committees that originally the Endless Frontier Act was renamed and very much expanded into this thing called USICA.
And it touches foreign relations policy, trade policy, supply chain issues, and touches many additional areas of research that were originally contemplated in the bill. And it’s taken us a couple years to get to now, and now it’s the final stretch, in a sense. Whether they’ll be able to come to a compromise—and there’s all sorts of interesting fissures that don’t necessarily play out along party lines; House-Senate dynamics that are at play as well. And just so many storylines that we can tell about debates that are playing out. We can get into some of the biggest ones in this conversation.
Trapani: I wanted to make sure that before we go too far, we take a step back and know that some listeners will be following this very closely. Others, just more casually. Others, not so much. And in discussions about this, there are a lot of buzzwords and concepts that get bandied about. People talk about competition, innovation, there’s a lot of talk about China. And my question for you is, so what does this really mean when we get down to brass tacks? What are some of the main objectives of these bills? What are they trying to accomplish?
Ambrose: Yeah. So I’d say there’s a distinct flavor to each. The Senate has a different approach than the House. And so the Senate bill’s very much, again, coming back to this vision from Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, who teamed up with a Republican Senator, Todd Young. Their goal was really essentially concerned about the US falling behind China, in particular, in certain strategic technology areas. Things like AI, robotics, advanced manufacturing, 5G telecommunications, and they got together and said, “Okay, let’s go big on an idea for really focusing federal research funding towards those areas.”
And it framed the whole thing very explicitly in terms of this competition with China over “industries of the future,” is one phrase that people like to use. Whereas the House—especially, the House Democrats—have been very reluctant to have the sole purpose of this bill to be about geopolitical competition, essentially. Their view, especially the House Science Committee, on a bipartisan basis, came up with a different framing that, in addition to wanting to be competitive with China in all these technology areas, they’re careful to say, “Well, it’s not just China that we’re competing with. There’s all sorts of other countries.”
But beyond the competitive dynamic, they’re also very much stressing that there’s other reasons that the government wants to do science, and baked into their proposal for ramping up the budget for the National Science Foundation, they also talk about grand societal challenges. Things like tackling climate change and tackling social inequities. And I think part of that is from the view that there’s all sorts of people that are not necessarily going to be drawn to science because of this geopolitical competition, they’re going to want to solve various other problems in their backyard, for instance. And so they’ve adopted very intentionally, a broader framing.
Now, I think one of the big debates that’s playing out in this is, does that dilute the effort, in a sense? The Senate was trying, their proposal picks out 10 key technology areas and really tries to organize the US research system, to a degree, around those 10 areas, where the House is much less prescriptive. And this gets back to what are we trying to achieve? Is this all just about economic competitiveness, or is it also things like tackling these bigger societal challenges? And I think that’s very much unresolved at the moment.
Trapani: Yeah, no, that’s really interesting. And you can see how that would add a lot of complexity to the process, especially given that this is a rare occurrence in a legislative sphere. So from a process perspective then, when we talk about two bills being conferenced, what is it that we are talking about?
Ambrose: This is a procedure that Congress does fairly rarely, at least in recent history, where the one chamber will pass its version of the bill, the other chamber passes its version, then they formally agree to appoint some number of people from each side that will formally represent the House and the Senate in negotiations. And in this case, it’s over a hundred people. And so it’s just a significant fraction of the total membership of Congress. But it’s not like everyone’s around some big table at once speaking. A lot of it is delegated to the staff level, and in particular, members have been appointed because they’re on certain committees. And so the Science Committee’s going to be the lead on the science provisions, obviously. And there’s a certain number of members and their staffs that are given just a piece of the bill to hash out among themselves.
And what we’ve heard is that the staff have been instructed to work out as much as they can, and then things that can’t be resolved get kicked up to the level of the members of Congress themselves. And we can talk about some of those issues that are likely being hashed out at the higher level, because they’re really thorny issues. And at this stage, it’s all pretty much happening behind closed doors. They did have one big kickoff meeting where a lot of the people who have been appointed to this committee, they showed up to talk about their priorities. And I was there that day, and it was one of the most fascinating congressional meetings I’ve ever been in—probably the most fascinating—where they did have a big round table, but people were coming in and out. It was almost a day-long meeting.
It started with the science folks, and they each made a little statement. A lot of it was just rehashing positions that they already had said previously, but just laying down a marker. And then through the day, different crowds of policy people from different areas of policy would circle in and out of the room. So there was the foreign policy folks showed up, then the tax policy people showed up. It was this huge game of musical chairs. There was just this great turn of people in the room—but that’s the only, as far as I’m aware, big public meeting that they’re going to have, and probably the rest of it will be just behind closed doors negotiations.
Trapani: I would like to get your perspective on what you see as some of the main tensions that are going on under the surface as they do this work.
Ambrose: Yeah. So one main one is this philosophical difference as to what should be the end goals of US science policies? Should we really just be zeroing in on this competitive dynamic, or should we take a broader view? Another big tension point that’s at play is a topic: the umbrella term is research security, where there’s a lot of lawmakers in Congress—on a bipartisan basis, but it’s particularly strong in the Republican caucus—a concern that, OK, the government’s spending all this money on science. We want to make sure that the benefits of that accrue to the US, at least primarily. And there’s a lot of concern that the Chinese government might take advantage of the US research system. The US research system is very open by design and there’s tons of benefits to that, but there’s been over the past few years, the momentum has been building for a while the concern that a lack of reciprocity, for instance, between the US system and China system, which was much more closed, that what should be done to prevent the US system from being taken advantage of?
And there’s a whole host of provisions in both bills that would create restrictions around people who participate in what are known as talent recruitment programs, where you work in the US, but you’re getting paid by a university in China to also spend some of your time over there. And Congress has come to take a very negative view of those things. Participating in that is not illegal in itself, but it’s being viewed as a way that you could have these unwanted technology transfers because of that. And so the bills both have provisions that would essentially, if you’re getting money from the US government, you would be prohibited from participating in those types of programs, at least from certain designated countries. And there’s a big debate about how broadly or not to define that.
Because it’s pretty common in science for countries, there’s all sorts of countries that create these funding schemes to encourage scientists that do work in their country, either completely recruiting them away or just partially recruiting them away. And so there’s been a push to define, well, what constitutes problematic behavior in international science collaborations? One of the big tension points I’ll tee up now is there’s a lot of interest in Congress, from both sides, about distributing research money across the US much more broadly than it has been in the past. And currently, it’s 10 or so states that just completely dominate the amount of winning grant awards from the National Science Foundation and other agencies. And there’s certain people, especially in the Senate, that would like to see that money more broadly distributed. I do think that’s one of the main sticking points in the legislation right now.
Trapani: That’s interesting. Can you say anything about where the administration is on this? Are there things they would like to see? Are they just waiting to see anything? Where are they?
Ambrose: Yeah, the administration is very much pushing for this legislation. President Biden has talked about it a fair amount and really is pushing on Congress to send them something. And the administration, their biggest priority, probably, in this whole thing is funding for the semiconductor sector. Where of course in the pandemic, everyone’s become very acutely aware of supply chain issues. It’s affecting so many different types of products, but particularly for chip manufacturing, there is a special concern. The birth of the semiconductor industry was here and the US used to have much bigger role in manufacturing them. But over time, that’s slipped away to other countries, primarily in Asia, especially Taiwan. And this again, of course, links back to the dynamic with China, where there’s concern that if China were to ever take back Taiwan, what would that mean for the chip sector?
And just for many reasons beyond that, wanting to have the domestic manufacturing base for that and this legislation in both bills, the House and Senate version. So this isn’t so much a tension point in that people are very much on board with really scaling up support for the domestic semiconductor manufacturing. It’s just that finding the right vehicle to get that passed is the challenge right now. And so both bills have about $50 billion worth of money, it’s a combination of incentives for semiconductor companies to build manufacturing plants in the US, which is a very expensive proposition. And there’s also, of the total, about $10 billion of it is for research. And that’s designed towards getting the next wave of chips, making sure that the US would be positioned to play the leading role in developing those. But I think there’s a fear that if they were to just pass that by itself, then there wouldn’t be enough support for these other things. So there’s an incentive to not just do that as a standalone thing, such that they can get a bigger package done.
Trapani: Yeah. It’s a strategic move to put some impetus behind some of the other pieces that otherwise might not move. I have just one more question about the dynamics in the field. When a lot of people think about Congress these days, partisanship is front of mind. You haven’t mentioned a lot about partisanship, but I was wondering if you could talk about what, if any, partisan dynamic might be driving the conference negotiations.
Ambrose: Yeah, there’s starting to be more talk of that, especially as we’ve got an election coming up in just a few months here in the US. And the conventional wisdom is that in the lead up to elections, that can really get in the way of deals being done. Because for instance, the Republicans might not be inclined, if this is viewed as a big win for the Biden administration, passing this thing, they might not be inclined to help Biden get a big win before the election.
But at the end of the day, to pass this type of legislation, you need 60 votes in the Senate, and then there’s still going to be Biden in the White House for at least few more years. And so you’re going to need Democratic support. Even if they were to take back both sides of Congress, they’re going to need to negotiate with Democrats, especially in the Senate and the administration. So would they really have all that much more leverage at the end of the day? It’s hard to say.
Trapani: What’s interesting is even as you were talking about the partisan dynamic, you were talking about some timing and some political considerations, but you didn’t really emphasize a very different vision of where US science should go between the two parties or a lot of substance and policy differences. That’s meaningful the fact that maybe they’re not all that far apart on a lot of these things.
Ambrose: Yeah. I think that there are some partisan tensions, for instance, on research security, the Republicans are generally interested in doing much more on that front than the Democrats are. But then you have other parts of policy where it doesn’t break down on party lines, it breaks down on House-Senate lines. For instance, this debate about expanding the geography of federal funding, where the Senate is very interested in that in part, because there’s this thing, sorry, this is going to get wonky. But there’s this thing known as the EPSCoR program, which is for a collection of states that don’t get above a certain amount of federal research funding each year, there’s a special pot of money that is only available to those states to compete for. And it’s a way of building their capacity to do research. But critics of the program argue that 1) it goes against the principle of merit-based competition, and 2) that there’s all sorts of institutions that would benefit from that type of research capacity support that happen to be in states that don’t qualify.
So you have a state like California, which gets an enormous amount of research money, does not qualify for this special program, but there are underserved institutions in California that would benefit from a leg up in research. And the House, in its version of the legislation, it has various proposals to help provide support to those types of institutions, emerging research institutions, regardless of where they’re located. Whereas the Senate has this framework about really scaling up EPSCoR states. It’s about 30 or so states, and that is pretty contentious. And there’s lots of senators from both parties that are supportive of that concept, because the criteria is tied to state-level criteria. So they have an incentive. Basically, all the people who have signed on in support of that provision are from EPSCoR states, and all the people who are against it are not from EPSCoR states. So you could say it’s a very parochial debate that’s playing out in that sense.
Trapani: Thank you for bringing that up. EPSCoR is wonky, but I was thinking, unlike Bruno, we need to talk about EPSCoR if we’re going to talk about this bill. And this proposal that you mentioned was for 20% of NSF’s budget to go to EPSCoR. Whereas right now it’s a very small percentage, maybe 2 or 3%, and there’s been significant pushback on this from exactly the kinds of people that you were talking about, who may not be in EPSCoR states, but who are saying, there are a lot of different types of institutions that need to have a fair shake here.
It’s interesting though, that in both cases, there is a desire to increase the geographic or institutional diversity of where the federal research money goes to. And it is interesting that objective is shared, even if it’s, as you said, parochial interests are determining in what manner they support that happening. And another one that I think you started to talk about right at the beginning is the new National Science Foundation directorate and the competing visions for that. Where are things with that now? Have they evolved significantly?
Ambrose: It’s hard to say where they are in terms of the current negotiations. Going back to that original Schumer proposal, he proposed renaming NSF as the National Science and Technology Foundation and adding an arm to it that would be funded to the tune of a $100 billion over five years. And by comparison, the current annual budget of NSF is only about $8 billion a year. So he’s talking about adding an arm to NSF that is many, many times bigger than the rest of NSF. So then it’s like, is it really still the National Science Foundation? And there’s a whole camp of people that are worried about this diluting the mission of NSF, which has traditionally been to support just very fundamental research, not necessarily connected to big strategic mission areas, and people are worried about this proposal taking it much more into this technology development mission, which maybe isn’t the best suited for NSF’s culture.
Now, that $100 billion over five years, that aspiration has been really scaled down. In the Senate version as it went through the Senate, they kicked down the budget target for that directorate. But there is still a big difference than the House version, where it also proposes creating a new directorate—with less of a technology mission, but still a sizable new directorate. But it’s still quite a bit smaller than the one proposed in the Senate. And that gets to this philosophical difference. What fraction of the agency do you want this new activity to encompass? But one thing I want to really stress is that at the end of the day, if these bills pass—with a notable exception of the semiconductor money, I’ll come back to that in a second—but if these bills pass or a final version passes, that itself doesn’t provide any new money.
And this is something that very frequently gets misreported in the press, or at least articles will imply that, “Oh, this bill, they’ll say it has $100 billion dollars for X, Y, and Z.” But most of that money is really what’s known as an authorization, which is essentially Congress just recommending to itself how much money they should commit to spend at a future date. And effectively, it’s a way of Congress mapping out a trajectory, saying, “Oh, we think—here’s a five-year target for how much we think the NSF budget should grow.”
And so both budgets, both bills, they propose pretty big increases to the NSF budget. But the way it’s written, Congress is going to have to, year over year through the appropriations process, commit to spending that amount of money. And there are people that are skeptical that that money is going to even appear.
In contrast, the semiconductor funding, the way it’s written, it’s what’s known as a mandatory appropriation. And that means that if the bill passes, that $50 billion is going to be distributed—it’s guaranteed. And that is being viewed as quite a significant step for Congress to do something like that. Because it typically doesn’t fund science and technology programs through mandatory appropriations.
So on the one hand, there’s these big philosophical debates playing out about how big should the NSF budget be, and they have competing targets for how big this new directorate should be. But at the end of the day, Congress is going to have to cough up the money in future years. And there’s a ton of money spent by the government in the pandemic, the federal deficit and debt, that’s a blooming issue. And is there going to be an appetite for spending all this extra science money? And I think that’s a huge open question.
Trapani: Yeah. And even if they were to, they would have to sustain it in future years even beyond that, as we saw with the doubling of the NIH (National Institutes of Health), which was done, actually, and then consistently eroded away by subsequent inflation increases when the budgets didn’t, in subsequent years after the five-year doubling, didn’t keep up.
So we’ve talked about a couple of big issues here. We’ve talked about the new technology directorate. We’ve talked about the geographic dispersal of funds. We’ve talked about semiconductors. We’ve talked about research security. Are there any other aspects of these bills that you’d like to highlight?
Ambrose: Yeah. Another one I’ll highlight as a pointed debate in the conference is high-skilled immigration. So the House version of the bill has proposals that would create essentially fast-tracked visas for people who graduate with advanced degrees in STEM fields. It would be all STEM doctorates essentially, and then certain categories of master’s degrees. And the Senate bill doesn’t have any provisions like that. And so going into the conference, if you want your provision to make it into the final bill, it helps to, from the start, have a somewhat similar provision of both bills, and the fact that the Senate doesn’t address it at all makes it a bit more of an uphill battle. This proposal has colloquially been known as “stapling a green card to diplomas.” And it’s been around, talked about for well over a decade, trying to do something like this. But immigration policy in the US has been deadlocked for well over a decade.
Going back to what I said earlier about this conference committee meeting, most of the statements were things that were already fairly well known, but one of the more newsy statements was the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, which has control over immigration policy, this is Senator Chuck Grassley, he showed up to the meeting and he made his statement all about that he doesn’t think the immigration provisions should be in the bill. He, on principle, thinks that they should be handled through standalone immigration legislation. I was able to catch him as he was leaving the room, and I asked him for clarification on his position. And he told me that he’s actually open to the idea of having a fast track for green cards for STEM graduates, but he doesn’t like the thought of establishing a precedent of attaching that sort of immigration reform to a much, much bigger bill.
At the end of the day, they could do it without his vote. But when you have the lead Republican on immigration policy opposing the idea of doing it in this legislation, that makes it quite an uphill battle.
Trapani: Yeah. That’s what really great example of all the different factors that are in play and how one member can have such a big impact on one particular issue. So now they’re in the conference doing their work—what happens now? What can you say about the timeframe? And then, what are the risks of this not going well or not going at all?
Ambrose: Yeah. So there was a notional push to get the bill wrapped up by the end of this month. I should stress that there’s tons in this bill that I haven’t talked about that has nothing to do with science or technology. It’s like esoteric trade policy that I haven’t even taken time to understand because it’s a whole nother world. But a lot of the trade provisions that were attached to the legislation are apparently one of the big sticking points.
So there’s a push to get it done before what’s known as the August recess in DC, where Congress is not in session. So that’s a natural deadline, and there’s a worry that if they can’t finish it before the August recess, then you’re just getting that much closer to the election. So in terms of the risk of them not finishing it this year, Schumer first made this proposal several years ago, and it’s just till now taken it to getting close to the finish line. So some people have already argued that’s been too much of a delay. But at the end of the day, it’s touching so many fundamental issues that I think there’s a camp of people that very rightfully doesn’t want to rush this.
I think it’ll come down to how firm people stand on certain issues, like the structure of the National Science Foundation and some of these research security provision, EPSCoR. The EPSCoR change alone would be a massive,massive—if they do what the Senate wants to do, that would be a massive, and I think if you’re in a state that currently is not eligible for these, a state that gets a lot of federal money already and wouldn’t be eligible for this set-aside that’s being proposed, if Congress were to pass a law saying that 20% of the NSF budget has to go to these other states, and if Congress doesn’t increase the NSF budget, then that means NSF is going to have to take money that is going to current projects and divert it to other states. And that could really upset things, I think will be one of the biggest sticking points.
Trapani: So my last question is just about how FYI and you and your colleagues are tracking the conference. And if you wanted to say a few words more generally about FYI and what it does for people who may have missed the first time that you were on the podcast.
Ambrose: Sure. So just a quick note on FYI, it’s a science policy news service, and we’d like to really track legislation in the US at a very fine grain of detail. So we’ve been following all sorts of bills that have been merged into this increasingly big package that’s now thousands of pages. And the way we’ve been tracking it is there’s events that give you a little window into where they’re at. So there was a hearing just this week, for instance, on immigration policy, where senators were talking about the case for making a special pathway for STEM immigrants. And that’s a way of getting a feel for how the conversation’s going. And so there are some open door events and also reporting from other outlets. In FYI, we very much rely on other outlets, and we like to link to them in our newsletter. We have a big weekly newsletter we encourage everyone to sign up for that has a roundup of reporting from around the web each week.
Trapani: Well, I would say if you work in science policy, you need to subscribe to FYI’s weekly newsletter and you need to check out the resources that they have on their website. It’s really indispensable for all of us who work in this space. It’s a great resource and we really appreciate it. Mitch, thanks so much for coming back on the podcast. It was great to have you. This was a really interesting, informative conversation.
Ambrose: Great to be on.
Trapani: Thank you for joining us for this episode of The Ongoing Transformation. If you have any comments, please email us at [email protected] and visit us at issues.org for more conversations and articles, visit aip.org/fyi for more science policy news. I’m Josh Trapani, senior editor of Issues in Science and Technology. See you next time.