Lawmakers Consider the National Science Foundation’s Future


Federal leaders made their cases for increased funding into research and continued focus on technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Emerging technologies—and partnerships promoting them among agencies and outside players—will be instrumental in ensuring America keeps an innovative edge in years to come, two senior government officials told lawmakers Wednesday.

“For the first time in decades, the United States’ leadership in science and engineering is facing intense global competition. Other nations, especially China, are investing vast resources in basic research and industries of the future, like artificial intelligence,” National Science Foundation Director Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan said during a hearing held by the House Research and Technology Subcommittee. “Advances in technologies like AI, quantum information science, and even the technologies we cannot yet conceive of, will influence the global balance of power for generations to come.” 

During the almost two hour-long virtual discussion on NSF’s modern role in advancing the nation’s scientific enterprise, Panchanathan and National Science Board Chair Dr. Ellen Ochoa shared their perspectives on the need for large increases to the federal science agency’s budget. They also called for a comprehensive approach to research and development investments that could bring science- and technology-centered innovations to market at a more rapid pace. 

The hearing unfolded as the subcommittee awaits President Joe Biden’s full funding priorities. 

But in a recently released initial discretionary budget request, the administration proposed $10.2 billion for NSF—or a 20% increase from the 2021 enacted level. Other bills aimed at boosting basic research funding have also been put forth in both chambers and were highlighted on Wednesday by various lawmakers who introduced them. In March, bipartisan House lawmakers proposed an ambitious target of doubling the agency’s current budget over five years via the NSF for the Future Act. That month, House Republicans also reintroduced the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act, or SALSTA, which would increase discovery-based, basic research efforts at NSF and other agencies over the next decade. And more recently, more than 20 lawmakers reintroduced the Endless Frontier Act, which would create a Technology and Innovation Directorate at the NSF, and authorize $100 billion in research investments there over five years.

“We have a unique window of opportunity before us. There is momentum on both sides of the aisle—in the House and the Senate, [there’s] legislation to secure our global science and technology leadership,” House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said during the hearing. “But it should be a comprehensive strategy, and sustainable. An $100 billion slush fund, for a top-down approach to developing technologies, as some have proposed, does not meet that criteria.”

Lucas, who played a part in the making of NSF for the Future Act and SALSTA, warned against a situation where a generation of researchers is disappointed because the government creates an expectation it can’t sustain. 

“I'm old enough to remember what we did in the effort to go to the moon and how that was almost forgotten by the American public and Congress in the aftermath,” he said. “It was very traumatic for a lot of brilliant people with careers at stake.”

The subcommittee’s Chairwoman Haley Stevens, D-Mich., responded that following the budget cuts to NSF that were proposed by the Trump administration, “it's certainly great and refreshing to be able to talk about investing in our scientific research agenda and responsibly thinking about the plus ups that we want to make to an independent federal agency such as the NSF.”

“The time is right to invest in science, technology and talent at the scale of our nation's challenges and NSF is the right agency for the job,” NSB’s Ochoa said. She added that NSF needs to help speed the path from discovery to innovation and impact.

Drawing on his experience as a Ph.D. physicist and practicing scientist, Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., deemed himself a lightning rod for the enthusiasms and the concerns of the scientific committee. “There is obviously a lot of excitement about this point in time where we may be approaching a Sputnik-like moment for an increase in the budget, but there’s also significant concerns,” he said. 

A primary challenge right now, according to the Congressman, is to capture this bipartisan appetite for research budget increases, as the government has struggled to maintain funding for people and scientific projects in this realm. He pointed to what’s now known as The Endless Frontier Report, “the spiritual guide” for NSF, and specifically, a sentence noting that “the simplest and most effective way in which the government can strengthen industrial research is to support basic research and to develop scientific talent.” He said NSF should be dedicated to pure scientific research and education, and cited concerns from scientists who worry a new technology directorate or an increased focus on commercial and applied research could distract from the agency’s core mission. 

“I frankly worry about a future in which you and your successors will be brought before Congress and asked, you know, ‘What products did you bring to the market and for us this year?’ when the real answer is that these products will only appear on the market many decades from now,” Foster said. “In fact, one of the biggest gifts that Congress could give to China would be to subject the NSF to Congressional micromanagement and short term commercial considerations [in the budget].”

NSF’s Panchanathan shed light on what an increase in funding could mean for the agency. When he joined as the director not so long ago, he asked how many of the 50,000-plus proposals the agency receives every year are deemed worthy of funding by panels but don’t make it through.

“It turns out one-third of the proposals, on average I mean, are worthy and thought of as highly competitive to be funded. But yet we fund only 20%, not 30%,” he explained. “So right there, on the chopping room floor, we are leaving unbelievable ideas and therefore what talent that could have generated on the table.”

He added that when marginally increasing the size of proposals, the agency hasn’t been able to keep up with inflation or rate of increase of graduate student stipends in the quickly evolving technology areas it supports. “So right there, you could think a 50% increase in the grant size would be more appropriate for what we need to be funding today,” Panchanathan said.

On top of encouraging heavier investments to drive technology-focused research, NSF’s director also reflected on the agency’s prioritization of specific technologies. The proposed budget boosts would mean more research for NSF to protect from competitors like China, Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla. noted. But the agency’s director said digital resources have proven helpful at detecting risks in its funding processes.

“Being an AI researcher myself, the analytic tools are becoming exceedingly powerful in ensuring we are able to glean this,” Panchanathan said. “And however much you provide a human element to this, technology can provide us a lot of insights and early warnings and indications that can be had.”

Lawmakers also asked about the agency’s quantum information science efforts. 

“China is aggressively recruiting U.S. researchers and scientists to grow their knowledge base and accelerate their time on quantum technologies,” Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, said. “My concern is if China were to get their hands on a quantum computer that can break today's mathematical encryptions, our country's IP personal data and mission critical systems would be more at risk than they already are.” 

Panchanathan emphasized the importance of promoting partnerships with “like-minded” countries and stakeholders throughout the hearing. He said even as it’s competing with China, the agency is also working with others around the globe that share its values, including Canada, to collaborate in relevant quantum pursuits. Panchanathan also pointed to the agency’s work with the Energy Department to establish quantum institutes. NSF and other agencies, he said, have been helping shape the coming quantum revolution for decades.

“This is again one of those things where many different agencies can come together—most importantly industry, leading industry like for example, IBM—coming together in partnership, so that we might accelerate the progress at a speed that is much greater than what we're able to do by just ourselves working,” he noted.