Lawmakers Propose More Than $100B for Federal Tech-Driving Investments

In this March 6, 2021, file photo Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington

In this March 6, 2021, file photo Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

The Senate is set to consider the bipartisan Endless Frontier Act in the coming weeks.

More than 20 lawmakers from both parties and chambers collectively called for the creation of a Technology and Innovation Directorate within the National Science Foundation—and proposed authorizing $100 billion over five years there to drive research into emerging technologies that could help ensure the U.S. keeps a competitive edge.

Mandates that would impact multiple other federal agencies were also included in the Endless Frontier Act, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., led a broader group of lawmakers in reintroducing this week. 

It follows a similar but not identical version of legislation under the same name put forward in the previous Congressional session. 

“We spent the last year seeking and listening to feedback from the science community, researchers, constituents, labor groups, industry leaders, national security stakeholders, and key members and committees in Congress,” Khanna told Nextgov in an email statement Thursday. “We took into account various suggested changes they raised as we updated the bill.”

One of the core, top-line elements again included is that novel NSF directorate. It would be explicitly intended to implement strategies and enable basic and translational research opportunities, according to the bill, to advance key modern technological areas such as quantum computing and information systems, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, semiconductors, robotics and more. Among other duties, that directorate would work to help diversify the STEM workforce, steer massive research investments at universities to push forward those technology realms, and institute programs to accelerate the transfer of tools between labs and the marketplace. That directorate could also partner with the rest of the agency, as well as others including the Energy Department and National Institute of Standards and Technology to achieve its aims.

This legislation would also allocate $10 billion over five years for the Commerce Department to put toward boosting technology and innovation in regional hubs across the nation, and another $2.4 billion for work with other agencies to expand U.S. manufacturing-centered initiatives.

“Whichever country wins the competition in key technologies and supporting capabilities will be the superpower of the future,” the lawmakers wrote in a two-pager summarizing the 160-page bill.

But unlike last year’s version, Khanna noted to Nextgov, this Endless Frontier Act would not direct the NSF to change its name to the National Science and Technology Foundation. This bill further omits other prior inclusions, like past calls for a new Board of Advisors and Senate-confirmed deputy director.

“It also beefs up the section and emphasis on securing our nation’s supply chain and implementation of the CHIPS Act,” Khanna said, referring to a measure passed in the last legislative session promoting semiconductor-aligned initiatives. Under this Endless Frontier Act, Commerce would be required to create a Supply Chain Resiliency and Crisis Response Program.

The bill resurfaced as the U.S. endures a global shortage of chips that power many commonly used devices. It also comes in the same month that the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment was released, warning of China’s increasing technological competitiveness.

Schumer said the legislation “is the key to preserving America’s position on the world stage as a current and future technological leader in the 21st Century.” He further confirmed that, in “the coming weeks, the Senate will turn to [it] and other pieces of bipartisan China-related legislation to ensure that the U.S. Government’s hand at home and abroad is as strong as possible as we compete with China on all fronts.”

Other lawmakers listed as backing the bill are: Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Chris Coons, D-Del., Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Gary Peters, D-Mich., Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Steve Daines, R-Mont., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz.; and Reps. Susan Wild, D-Penn., Mike Turner, R-Ohio, Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., and Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J. It was referred to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology; and Energy and Commerce committees.

Organizations including the international society for optics and photonics, software alliance, and others voiced their support, following the new version’s introduction. And in a statement released by the White House Wednesday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki deemed the bill “one more encouraging sign of the bipartisan support for investing” in U.S. competitiveness. President Joe Biden’s recently released initial budget request also mentioned a need for an innovation-focused directorate at the NSF. 

“The president shares the co-sponsors’ commitment to making a bold investment in American innovation—including large increases in funding at the [NSF] to support both [research and development] and commercialization, and new funding to support regional economic development so what is discovered in America can be made in America,” Psaki said. “And, the president welcomes the bill’s focus on strengthening American supply chains—an issue he has taken action on and championed.”

Still, the reshaped legislation likely won’t move forward without some opposition.

“I have been a strong advocate for prioritizing investment in American science and technology, so while I welcome Senator Schumer to this important discussion, the Endless Frontier Act is both problematic legislation and a flawed approach to driving American Innovation,” House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said. “With a $112 billion slush fund for the White House to spend on technology, this proposal lacks strategy, focus, and practical solutions.”