HomeBudget & Tax NewsProtect the National Science Foundation’s Basic Research Mission

Protect the National Science Foundation’s Basic Research Mission

Competition legislation before Congress would shift the NSF away from its basic research mission toward bringing technology to market.

Last weekend, Congress missed its deadline to complete work in conference on sprawling competitiveness, technology, and innovation bills: the House-authored America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPTES) Act and the Senate-authored US Innovation and Competition Act (USICA). Congress now faces a new deadline—the July 4 recess—to complete the conference work. There are many issues still to be resolved, not least because both bills are loaded with extraneous issues such as anti–Chinese trade restrictions, climate change provisions, trade adjustment assistance for workers, and new criteria for trade concessions to less-developed economies.

In an op-ed for the Hill last May, I expressed reservations about the shape and direction the legislation was taking with regard to the role of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the balance between basic research and technological development—particularly in the Senate bill. These reservations have been heightened by the evolution of the legislation as it goes to conference.

First, some background realities: Strategic technology and fear of losing ground to China have been the impelling forces behind the drive for revamping and greatly augmenting the US government’s role in innovation. From the outset, basic scientific research issues and challenges, while not ignored, were not front and center. This was clear in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) original Endless Frontier Act, which proposed changing the NSF’s name (and mission) to the “National Science and Technology Foundation,” with a technology directorate that would virtually become an agency within an agency.

As the conference proceeds, there are important proximate realities to understand. First, the Senate conferees are no doubt in a strong position, as USICA passed the Senate with substantial bipartisan support from Republicans in a 68–32 vote. On the House side, however, the COMPETES Act passed with almost no Republican support (222–210 with one Republican vote). As a general rule, the Senate bill reflects the priorities of technology proponents, while the House bill—with strong input from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology—is more protective of the NSF’s basic research mission.

There are important differences between the House and Senate bills as they relate to the NSF and balancing basic research with technological and commercial development. (Numbers are approximate as exact details are evolving.) While the Senate compromised on some imbalances, the pressure for short-term payoff from research remains troubling. USICA would create a new entity, the Directorate for Technology and Innovation, with a clear technology and commercialization focus on 10 critical technologies that will help “[mitigate] technology challenges integral to the geostrategic position of the United States.”

USICA thus aims to mandate criteria for development support independent of the NSF’s research priorities and dependent on much closer ties to private industry. In fact, USICA supporters stress that they aim to set up independent criteria for NSF commercialization activities, moving beyond the “prerogatives of scientists to decide what to work on” and, by extension, technology development priorities.

In pursuit of compromise, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan created a new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP), which bowed in the direction of the House legislation’s critics via an explicit mandate to “rapidly bring new technologies to market” and address pressing “societal and economic challenges.” TIP is envisaged as a “cross-cutting platform” that will take ideas from the NSF’s six research directorates and advance them commercially. There is no explicit Senate-backed charge to focus on some 10 critical technologies. And while the aforementioned House committee’s members have praised the NSF’s action, Senate leaders on USICA have made clear it is insufficient.

Balancing new funding with continued support for the NSF’s existing basic research agenda is also a major area of difference between the two legislative visions. Both the House and Senate propose doubling the NSF’s budget over the next five years, but the House version provides a cumulative total of about $14 billion for TIP, while the Senate version authorizes some $30 billion, bringing TIP to more than 40 percent of the total agency budget. Such an outsized shift of the agency’s budgeting will inevitably skew resources and priorities toward competitiveness and commercialization and away from the NSF’s traditional focus on basic academic research.

Certainly, at this point it looks as if USICA’s technology-driven changes will prevail. But at a minimum, Congress should also provide for continued review of these momentous reforms and be prepared to revisit these mission and budget priority reforms on a continuing basis. It may well be that at some point it will make sense to create a stand-alone government technology foundation, allowing the NSF to return to its vital mission of funding basic academic research. The danger here would be that a richly funded commercialization agency could become a honeypot for corporate welfare. Nonetheless, this Hobson’s choice might be inevitable to maintain and strengthen the “endless frontier” of US basic science.

Originally published by American Enterprise Institute. Republished with permission. For more Budget & Tax News.

Claude Barfield
Claude Barfield
Claude Barfield is a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

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