The new agency would feature a technology directorate to usher advancements in cutting-edge fields like artificial intelligence, 5G communications and cybersecurity.
Bipartisan legislation introduced Wednesday would restructure the National Science Foundation to focus on emerging technologies and infuse the federal agency with $100 billion in funding over the next five years.
The bicameral Endless Frontier Act, spearheaded by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., would rename the National Science Foundation to the National Science and Technology Foundation and create a new technology directorate within the rebranded agency.
The new directorate would receive $100 billion over five years to lead investment and research in 10 core areas, including artificial intelligence and machine learning; high-performance computing; quantum computing; robotics and automation; natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention; advanced communications technologies like 5G; biotechnology and genomics; advanced energy technologies; cybersecurity and data management; and materials science and engineering. Typically, NSF receives less than $10 billion in annual funding.
“The coronavirus pandemic has shown the science and technology gap between the United States and the rest of the world is closing fast and that threatens our long-term health, economic competitiveness, and national security,” Schumer said in a statement. “America cannot afford to continue our decades-long underinvestment and expect to lead the world in advanced scientific and technological research. To ensure our advantage, our bill treats scientific research as a national security priority and provides substantial new investments into funding critical research and development to build the industries of the future in regions across the country.”
The bill further allocates $10 billion in funding to the Commerce Department to create at least 10 regional tech hubs charged with being “global centers for the research, development and manufacturing of key technologies.” According to the legislation, the regional technology hubs would “connect disadvantaged populations and places to new job and business opportunities” as they develop these technologies.
Lawmakers supporting the bill said significant federal tech investment is required if the country wants to continue leading the worldwide tech arms race. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., said adversaries like China are attempting to capitalize off the coronavirus outbreak by stealing technology and sowing public distrust.
“The spread of the coronavirus around the world has heightened the public’s awareness of the deep connections and serious vulnerabilities that shape our lives in the 21st century. Instead of allowing Beijing to threaten our values and interests, now is the time for America to invest in ourselves and give the world a clear alternative,” Young said in a statement. “America’s history is filled with bold initiatives and calculated investments that have harnessed America’s ability to collaborate across the public and private sectors. As America emerges from this crisis, we must not be content with merely recovering our losses. Instead, we must position ourselves to lead and the Endless Frontier Act is the way to do it.”
The bill would give the rebranded NSF “DARPA-like authorities”—referencing the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—and allow the agency to utilize program managers to select awardees.
Under the bill, the new agency would have two deputy directors, one who would oversee existing NSF operations and another to oversee the new tech directorate. The bill dictates the new directorate would have “flexible personnel, program management and awarding authorities,” and a newly created advisory board would make recommendations about advancing tech in the directorate’s key focus areas.
“To win the 21st century, we need to invest in the technologies of the future,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. “That means increasing public funding into those sectors of our economy that will drive innovation and create new jobs. Particularly at a moment when so many folks are in need of stable employment, Congress should do everything in our power to develop sustainable industries across our country that will be here to stay, or else risk losing our competitive edge to China.”
The agency’s tech directorate would have an extensive toolkit to affect technological change. The legislation would authorize the agency to provide funding increases in research spending to universities, consortia with private industry and U.S. allies; offer new undergraduate scholarships and training programs; develop test-bed and fabrication facilities; develop programs to facilitate and accelerate the transfer of new technologies from the lab to marketplace; and coordinate with state and local economic development stakeholders and private sector to build regional innovation ecosystems.
“In recent years, the United States has taken important steps to slow the transfer of critical technologies to the Chinese Communist Party,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc. “But in order to ensure the CCP does not gain technological superiority in the future, we also need to make proactive investments in strategic technologies central to the competition. The Endless Frontiers Act is a downpayment for future generations of American technological leadership, and I'm proud to introduce it on a bipartisan basis.”