Can CHIPS and Science Achieve Its Potential?
Amid rising concerns over the United States’ capacity to innovate and address large-scale societal challenges, the CHIPS and Science Act represents a positive and well-timed achievement for legislators and their staff. As multiple authors point out in a special section of the Fall 2022 Issues that explores how to help the act deliver on its promises, the 400-page law seeks to address goals in a variety of areas: semiconductor production; skills development in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; regional innovation, and discovery science, among others.
In “An Infection Point for Technological Leadership?” Steven C. Currall and Venkatesh Narayanamurti raise a particularly salient and subtle point: the attempt in CHIPS to nudge parallel investments in discovery science and technological invention, primarily through reforms to the National Science Foundation. The intimate interplay between discovery and invention has yielded breakthroughs in the past, and such linked investments may offer potential going forward. Even before CHIPS, the NSF boasted an appealing mix of discovery science grant programs, multidisciplinary research centers, and industrial partnerships. The new law creates an opportunity to deepen these networks and expand the funding palette to accelerate discovery, invention, and commercialization together. Whatever the outcomes of CHIPS semiconductor funding, the other areas of science reform flowing from the legislation may yield real long-term benefit for US innovation.
But a throughline of the CHIPS coverage is the idea of “potential.” If the long-run goal is to enhance US science and innovation leadership and industrial capacity, then the bipartisan vote for the CHIPS and Science Act really represents the end of the beginning, as agencies move on to implementation and Congress performs oversight.
What comes next? The most crucial and immediate need is robust appropriations, as Currall and Narayanamurti correctly identify, including for newly created programs on regional technology hubs, nuclear research instrumentation, and microelectronics research and development, among other areas. As of mid-December 2022, Congress is already well past the fiscal deadline and has yet to reach a deal on overall spending, which will facilitate CHIPS investments. There’s a chance that appropriations may stretch into 2023, which would represent a failure in Congress’s first test to put the science provisions into practice. The multiyear time horizon for CHIPS means future Congresses—and possibly a new administration in 2025—will also be on the funding hook for fulfilling the CHIPS and Science vision.
Beyond appropriations, the federal government should think about honing its strategic acumen. CHIPS directs agencies to invest in critical technology areas and mandates a broad science and technology strategy from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). In light of these directives, government should expand its capacity to analyze and understand data, trends, and national performance in emerging and critical technology. This would raise its tech IQ, improve federal ability to spot critical supply chain trouble, and ensure smart investment decisions with an eye to long-term competitiveness. Congress can help lead in this area, and should encourage OSTP to take its role as strategist and quarterback seriously.
The new Congress will also have an opportunity to focus on research and industrial capacity in a sector that didn’t get much attention in CHIPS: space. Congress and the agencies could work together to address space junk, expand technology investments in in-space manufacturing and advanced propulsion, modernize federal space technology acquisition, or reform global treaties to facilitate the peaceful development of space. These and other moves could do for space what the CHIPS and Science Act sought to do for microelectronics, in a similar spirit of enhancing US competitiveness in the long run.
Associate Director for R&D and Advanced Industry
Federation of American Scientists