Bill Would Commit Tens of Billions to Modernize National Labs

Rep. Bill Foster

Rep. Bill Foster (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool

Rep. Bill Foster shed light on how the bill fits into a broader Congressional strategy to boost U.S. investments in science and research, and what’s to come for the National Lab Caucus.

Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., proposed infusing the Energy Department with more than $6 billion each year between 2022 and 2026 to improve and upgrade its national laboratories.

The Restore and Modernize Our National Laboratories Act of 2021, introduced by Foster last week, lays out how that money would be used to revamp national infrastructure and support existing and emerging science-centered pursuits.

“If you look in the past, the [DOE] and national laboratories have more than pulled their weight on things like developing the technology necessary to deal with climate change and so many other key technologies that we depend on every day,” Foster told Nextgov in an interview Thursday. “The estimates are that roughly half of all economic growth since World War II is because of scientific research and technology, and the labs have led the way not only in developing these breakthrough technologies—but also in commercializing them.”

He shed light on how the fresh bill fits into a broader Congressional strategy to boost U.S. investments in science and research, and what’s to come for the National Lab Caucus.

Foster is a PhD physicist. He spent more than two decades working inside Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, before his time on the Hill. 

“What we were doing when I was there was colliding protons and antiprotons together to make particles that have not been around since the Big Bang,” Foster explained. “And so I was part of the team that discovered the top quark, which is the heaviest known form of matter.”

Drawing from those firsthand experiences and discussions with colleagues in the national labs circle, Foster is no stranger to the needs inside those Energy Department-led research hubs. He noted that every national lab has a list of capital improvement and refurbishment projects. 

“And for many years, those have been underfunded,” Foster said. “So there's a backlog that totals more than $30 billion of unfunded shovel-ready, ready-to-go projects.”

The lawmaker’s three-page bill, shared with Nextgov this week, would authorize Congress to appropriate $6.1 billion each year over the next four years. Specifically, those funds would need to be used by the Energy Department for priority maintenance projects at the labs, and the sustainment and upgrade of lab infrastructure—including construction. The funding could also support lab modernization programs and the promotion of environmentally responsible operations.

Foster’s legislation was referred to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology after introduction, and the lawmaker confirmed there is also companion legislation in the Senate.

“This is part of a bipartisan desire to double the scientific research budgets in the United States,” he noted. 

On that House SS&T Committee where he serves, according to the lawmaker, there’s been dueling proposals between Democrats and Republicans to double the U.S. science budget over the last couple of years. But those submissions have more recently been unified under the leadership of Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and Frank Lucas, R-Okla., Foster added. He anticipates further bipartisan support on this topic. 

Looking forward, the congressman explained that he and others are working to include a robust telecom initiative “that will establish universal affordable broadband for everyone in” America, via the massive, in-talks infrastructure package.

Also on Foster’s docket is a plan to revive the National Lab Caucus, which he helped co-found in 2018. 

“It has been dormant during COVID—we had to because no one was doing congressional delegations,” he noted. “But just yesterday, Energy Secretary [Jennifer Granholm] and I had a discussion about restarting it, and with the idea that she would be tagging along on some of the [visits involved lawmakers’ take to various national labs].”