FY21 NDAA Enacted: Science and Technology Policy Highlights

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Publication date: 
March 9, 2021

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 authorizes major new initiatives in advanced technologies and makes an array of policy updates aimed at bolstering U.S. private-sector innovation, the defense STEM workforce, and the environmental resilience of military infrastructure and operations.


House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA) and then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jim Inhofe (R-OK) in November 2020.

House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA) and then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jim Inhofe (R-OK) jointly lead a meeting in November 2020 to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021.

(Image credit – SASC)

Enacted on Jan. 1, this year’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has a strong focus on advanced technologies, particularly through its inclusion of the CHIPS for America Act and National AI Initiative Act, both of which set the stage for major interagency R&D efforts. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense will work to implement an array of other provisions aimed at bolstering the network of contractors, technology startups, and academic labs that has come to be called the “national security innovation base.”

This is the 60th year in a row that Congress has passed a major defense policy update. In this case, it did so in defiance of President Trump, who vetoed the legislation on Dec. 23. That a split Congress was able to easily summon the two-thirds majorities needed to overturn the veto reflects the fact that the NDAA is one of the few major legislative tasks in which bipartisan cooperation and deal-making are considered par for the course.

The NDAA conference report includes the full text of the bill and outlines which proposals from the original House and Senate versions were included and how they were amended. Highlights for science and technology policy are summarized below. Bracketed numbers refer to the corresponding sections of the bill.

Advanced technologies

Microelectronics. The CHIPS for America Act [Secs. 9901–9908] authorizes a set of efforts across the government to promote U.S.-based semiconductor innovation and manufacturing and to mitigate risk in global supply chains. Spurred partly by the current global chip shortage, considerable bipartisan support has already coalesced around appropriating funds for the initiative, which could provide billions of dollars to U.S. companies, trusted international partners, and academic researchers.

A separate provision updates the required contents of a trusted microelectronics strategy that Congress previously directed DOD to prepare. The strategy now must assess the merits of creating a “national laboratory” focused exclusively on microelectronics R&D and consider public-private partnership models for executing the strategy, including the option of establishing a “semiconductor manufacturing corporation.” The corporation is described as an entity that would “leverage private-sector technical, managerial, and investment expertise, and private capital,” and that would be able to “provide grants, or improve investment tax credits, or both.” [Sec. 276]

Artificial intelligence. The National AI Initiative Act [Secs. 5001–5501] directs federal agencies, led by the National Science Foundation, to fund the establishment of AI R&D institutes and support other research and workforce development activities. NSF and the Department of Agriculture already began awarding institute grants last year and Congress has specified that NSF may spend up to $868 million on AI in the current fiscal year.

Separate provisions modify policy for DOD’s Joint AI Center, including by elevating it so that it reports to the deputy defense secretary and by establishing a board of advisors for it. Another provision requires DOD to assess its ability to ensure that AI technologies it acquires are “ethically and responsibly developed.” [Secs. 231–235]

Social, management, and information science. DOD is directed to establish an R&D program in “social science, management science, and information science” that is focused on activities such as “optimization of analysis of national security data sets,” “development of innovative defense-related management activities,” and “improving understanding of the fundamental social, cultural, and behavioral forces that shape the strategic interests of the United States.” [Sec. 220]

Spectrum management. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is directed to prepare a plan for modernizing and automating federal management of the radiofrequency spectrum. DOD is directed to consolidate responsibility for spectrum-related operations into a single entity, building on the congressionally mandated spectrum strategy unveiled last fall, and to assign responsibility for 5G networking to the department’s chief information officer. [Secs. 152, 224, and 9203]

Several provisions are motivated by the recent controversy over the Federal Communications Commission’s assignment of certain spectrum bands to the company Ligado, which opponents have argued could cause interference with the Global Positioning System. Two provisions call for detailed assessments of the move’s implications for DOD. Two others prohibit DOD from assuming expenses related to any interference with its GPS equipment, which Ligado has promised to cover, and from contracting with any entity that operates equipment in GPS-adjacent bands unless the department certifies there is no harmful interference with its own equipment. [Secs. 1661–1664]

Telecommunications. The NDAA creates a Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund to promote the development, deployment, and security of 5G technologies, as well as a Multilateral Telecommunications Security Fund to help the U.S. join with other trusted nations in funding R&D and to bolster supply chains for secure telecommunications technologies. The funds will require a separate appropriation and will be respectively administered by the NTIA and the State Department. [Sec. 9202]

Quantum computing. DOD is directed to set technical priorities for its quantum computing R&D program and is authorized to enter agreements with businesses offering quantum computing capabilities. A separate provision directs DOD to assess national security risks posed by quantum computing. [Secs. 214 and 1722]

Emerging technologies. The Industries of the Future Act [Sec. 9412] directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to define the term “industries of the future” and submit a proposal for increasing nondefense R&D funding for these industries to $10 billion per year by fiscal year 2025. Under the Trump administration, the phrase referred specifically to artificial intelligence, quantum information science, 5G telecommunications, biotechnology, and advanced manufacturing. OSTP is also instructed to propose a path for doubling nondefense QIS funding over a baseline level by fiscal year 2022. In addition, the president is directed to establish an interagency Industries of the Future Coordination Council. A separate provision directs DOD to establish a steering committee that will assess threats related to an array of advanced technologies and to recommend strategies for addressing them. [Sec. 236]

Research security, innovation, and industrial base policy

Academic research security. This year’s NDAA modifies an initiative that Congress mandated two years ago to protect academic research from “undue influence” by rival nations. DOD is now instructed to publish a list of “foreign talent programs” that undermine U.S. national security interests and a list of academic institutions in countries, including but not limited to China and Russia, that have engaged in various malicious practices or that “operate under the direction of the military forces or intelligence agency of the applicable country.” In addition, DOD is directed to designate an official responsible for liaising with academic institutions and to arrange for academic officials to be briefed on espionage risks. [Sec. 1299C]

Funding recipient vetting. The same provision expands on last year’s direction that DOD develop means of vetting department-funded researchers who work in applied R&D by requiring it to also develop policies and procedures for gathering “appropriate information” on those conducting “fundamental research.”

Funding disclosure. A separate provision directs all major federal science agencies to require funding applicants to disclose the sources and amounts of all other support they are receiving or expect to receive. The provision defines “support” as including, in addition to funding, “in-kind contributions requiring a commitment of time and directly supporting the individual’s research and development efforts,” such as “office or laboratory space, equipment, supplies, employees, or students.” To penalize non-compliance, agencies are authorized to take actions ranging from rejecting applications to notifying law enforcement authorities. OSTP is directed to help harmonize disclosure policies across agencies. [Sec. 223]

Assistant secretary position. The NDAA elevates responsibility for industrial base policy to the assistant secretary level. Justifying the move, the conference report cites concerns over the health of the defense industrial base and the reliability of its supply chains. [Sec. 903]

Technology protections. DOD is directed to identify “policies and procedures protecting defense-sensitive United States intellectual property, technology, and other data and information … from acquisition by the government of China,” and to establish additional protections if the existing ones are deemed insufficient. [Sec. 837]

Employment restrictions. The same provision directs DOD to consider how it might restrict current and former employees of DOD contractors that “contribute significantly or materially” to sensitive technologies from “working directly or indirectly” for companies that are wholly owned by the Chinese government or are deemed to be under its “control or influence.”

Technology standards. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is directed to commission a study of China’s growing influence over the development of international standards for emerging technologies, how this influence advances Chinese interests, and what mitigating steps the U.S. could take. [Sec. 9414]

Secure capital. Instead of creating a dedicated advisory board, as initially proposed, Congress directs DOD to consult with existing advisory bodies for guidance on National Security Innovation Capital, an as-yet unfunded program for investing in hardware startups as a counterweight to venture capital from rival nations. [Sec. 213]

Policy recommendations. DOD is directed to assess the “economic forces and structures” that shape the national security innovation base and to provide recommendations concerning competition and trade policy, immigration policy, education and research funding, and intellectual property policy, among other factors. A separate provision directs DOD to develop follow-on recommendations to a 2018 report on the defense industrial base. [Secs. 850 and 889]

International partnerships. DOD is directed to identify “technologies, companies, laboratories, and factories” associated with the National Technology and Industrial Base, a term referring to U.S. defense technology alliances with Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The provision also directs DOD to develop procedures for admitting additional members to the NTIB and the conference report expresses concern the NTIB Council does not meet frequently enough. [Sec. 846]

China’s technology base. DOD is directed to establish capabilities for assessing the “defense technological and industrial bases of China and other foreign adversaries.” This includes capabilities for making comparisons with U.S. industry and for considering factors such as the “technical competence and agility” of leaders in adversary countries, their “availability of human and material resources,” and the extent to which they rely on the industrial bases of the U.S. and partner nations. [Sec. 1260C]

Talent recruitment studies. DOD is directed to initiate a National Academies study that compares efforts by the U.S. and China to “recruit and retain domestic and foreign researchers.” Aside from examining the incentives the programs offer and their recruiting strategies, the study is to estimate the number of researchers participating in these programs and the subsets working in academia and U.S. defense and nuclear security labs. The study will also include a broad analysis of the risks and benefits of U.S.–China cooperation in scientific research. [Sec. 283]

In addition to its comparative study, DOD is directed to initiate a narrower study on options for establishing a program to recruit to the department individuals engaged in national security work, including DOD-funded research. [Sec. 252]

STEM workforce development and education


A candidate being interviewed at a 2019 science and engineering job fair at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.

A candidate being interviewed at a 2019 science and engineering job fair at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. At that time, the base indicated it expected to hire between 200 and 300 scientists and engineers per year over several years due to increased workloads and retirements.

(Image credit – Todd Cromar / U.S. Air Force)

Temporary DOD employment. DOD is directed to establish a program allowing university faculty members and students to work in the defense science and technology enterprise part-time or for a limited term. The program is required to create at least 10 such positions for faculty members in its first year, with at least five reserved for individuals working in the area of artificial intelligence and machine learning. [Sec. 249]

Enhanced pay for experts. The NDAA makes permanent a pilot program that authorizes pay of up to 150% of ordinary rates for up to five term-limited positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and each of the military departments. The positions are reserved for individuals who are at an “extremely high level in a scientific, technical, professional, or acquisition management field, and are critical to the successful accomplishment of an important acquisition or technology development mission.” A similar pilot program for experts working at defense labs is also made permanent, while an authority allowing enhanced pay for up to 200 individuals at Department of Energy nuclear facilities is extended through the current fiscal year. [Secs. 1114, 1115, and 3141]

Fellowship pay increase. Pay rates are increased for participants in the Technology and National Security Fellowship program, which was created by last year’s NDAA and places individuals with STEM backgrounds in one-year positions at DOD and defense-focused congressional offices. [Sec. 243]

Public-private talent exchange. In operating its new public-private talent exchange program, DOD is directed to emphasize its advanced technology modernization priorities, ensure it treats the program as a boon for its military participants, and take steps to protect against abuses related to financial conflicts of interest. [Sec. 1102]

Academic talent consortia. The NDAA increases from three to four the number of multi-institutional consortia DOD is required to establish for expediting access to academic expertise. Congressional authorization for the program is extended from fiscal year 2022 to fiscal year 2026. [Sec. 244]

Traineeship program. The NDAA does not include a proposal to create a graduate student traineeship program aimed at priority R&D areas. Instead, the conference report directs DOD to analyze various alternative “training and educational models” that might help expand its access to talent in these areas.

SMART scholarship diversity. DOD is directed to work to diversify participation in its SMART (Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation) scholarship-for-service program, including by partnering with educational institutions such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority-serving institutions. DOD is also authorized to arrange for program participants to take on paid internships with industry sponsors. [Secs. 242 and 250]

JROTC STEM education. The NDAA authorizes a new DOD grant program that aims to improve the ability of educational entities hosting units of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps to provide STEM training to JROTC students. [Sec. 513]

STARBASE. The scope of DOD’s STARBASE youth outreach program is expanded from its focus on science, mathematics, and technology to include art, engineering, and design. The program’s geographical reach is also expanded to include the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. [Secs. 591 and 592]

Contractor STEM outreach. DOD is directed to develop programs and incentives, including an award, to encourage its contractors to conduct and support STEM education in schools and institutions of higher education. [Sec. 245]

NNSA contractor diversity. The National Nuclear Security Administration is directed to provide Congress with annual updates on the diversity of its contractor workforce and on plans for increasing diversity. [Sec. 3146]

Weapons technology

NNSA budget formulation. Prompted by a controversy last year over the formulation of the budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the NDAA gives the DOD-centric Nuclear Weapons Council the authority to review NNSA’s budget proposal before its submission to the White House. If the council dissents, it is entitled to include its views in an appendix to the submission that must also be included with the final request to Congress. Opponents of allowing the council input during the early stages of the budget process have argued it erodes the Department of Energy’s authority over NNSA and the tradition of maintaining civilian control over the U.S. nuclear stockpile. [Sec. 1632]

Plutonium pits. Although Congress has mandated that NNSA produce at least 80 plutonium nuclear weapons cores, known as pits, per year by 2030, independent analysts have concluded that goal is almost certainly unachievable under the agency’s current plans, which involve building a new production facility at its Savannah River Site. Accordingly, the NDAA directs NNSA to commission a cost analysis of its pit production plans, and if it affirms there is low confidence in meeting current goals, to report back to Congress on the consequences of extending the effort’s deadline by up to five years. [Sec. 3114]

Nuclear tests and weapons effects. The NDAA includes no provisions concerning explosive nuclear weapons tests, which lawmakers had considered including in view of reports the Trump administration had considered undertaking such tests. It does include a provision stating that Congress believes that compensation for individuals who contracted serious diseases related to Cold War-era uranium mining and nuclear tests should continue beyond next year’s expiration of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Another provision mandates a National Academies study of the potential environmental effects of both large and regional nuclear wars. [Secs. 3147 and 3171]

Next-generation computing. NNSA is directed to initiate a National Academies study of its computing needs over the next 20 years that cannot be accomplished through exascale machines. [Sec. 3172]

Space Development Agency. The NDAA affirms that DOD’s Space Development Agency will transfer to the Space Force at the end of fiscal year 2022, turning back the Department of the Air Force’s push to make the move sooner. Another provision extends authorities to SDA that facilitate the recruitment of “eminent experts” in science and engineering. The conference report stresses that SDA is expected to “develop and preserve an independent culture of innovation and rapid acquisition that is separate and distinct from the more traditional space acquisition within the U.S. Space Force and the Department of the Air Force.” [Secs. 1601 and 1602]

Missile Defense Agency. The NDAA requires DOD to report to Congress on the prospects of transferring responsibility for MDA from the under secretary of defense for research and engineering to the under secretary for acquisition and sustainment. [Sec. 1641]

Space-based tracking sensors. The NDAA affirms that the development of a missile-tracking sensor for a space-based warning system will remain with MDA through at least fiscal year 2022, despite DOD’s proposal to transfer it to SDA, which is responsible for developing the satellites that will carry it. The same provision sets the end of 2023 as the deadline for testing the payload in space. [Sec. 1645]

Directed energy working group. DOD is directed to establish a working group to evaluate and make recommendations concerning efforts across the department to develop directed-energy weapons. [Sec. 215]

Environmental research and resilience


Crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy pull a buoy across Arctic sea ice in 2018.

Crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy pull a buoy across Arctic sea ice in 2018. The buoy contains sensors for making air and water measurements needed to study stratified ocean dynamics.

(Image credit – Senior Chief Petty Officer NyxoLyno Cangemi – U.S. Coast Guard)

Climate planning. The director of national intelligence is directed to establish a National Academies Climate Security Roundtable comprising senior officials from DOD, the intelligence community, and science agencies, as well as stakeholders from the research community. The roundtable is charged with providing guidance to the Climate Security Advisory Council established through last year’s NDAA on matters such as how best to exchange relevant data and expertise across the government. In addition, DOD is directed to update the Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap it completed in 2014. [Secs. 327 and 1622]

Arctic planning. DOD is authorized to establish an Arctic R&D program focused on technical and tactical challenges involved with conducting military operations in Arctic environments. The department is also authorized to establish a regional center for Arctic security studies to be named after Ted Stevens, who served as a senator for Alaska from 1968 to 2009. [Secs. 1060 and 1089]

Ocean research. The NDAA reauthorizes the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, a Navy-administered initiative that facilitates ocean research and education partnerships between federal agencies, industry, and academia. The provision enshrines in statute the interagency Ocean Policy Committee that was created by executive order in 2018 and transfers administration of the Ocean Research Advisory Panel from the Navy to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, the final provision does not incorporate a proposal to create a fund for pooling money from government and non-government sources for grants and contracts. [Sec. 1055]

Sustainable chemistry. The Sustainable Chemistry R&D Act [Secs. 261–267] establishes an interagency R&D initiative to reduce the environmental impacts of chemical processes and products, entailing the creation of an interagency coordinating entity, the formulation of a strategic plan, and direction to federal science agencies to support relevant work.

Research management

Disclosure of DOD funding. The NDAA requires that, as of Oct. 1, 2021, any individual or entity receiving DOD R&D funding must “include, in any public document pertaining to such activities, a clear statement indicating the dollar amount of the funds received.” The requirement does not apply to written statements “consisting of fewer than 280 characters.” [Sec. 212]

Cost-sharing with foreign partners. For cooperative DOD R&D projects pursued with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or allied foreign countries, the NDAA stipulates that the requirement that costs be shared equally may be waived if the defense secretary deems the project of “strategic value to the United States or another participant in the project.” [Sec. 211]

Small-business contracts. A DOD pilot program that streamlines procedures for awarding small businesses contracts of up to $7.5 million for technology development projects is extended through the end of fiscal year 2022. The conference report directs DOD to provide evidence of the value of such authorities to justify further extensions. [Sec. 832]

Management enhancement pilot. A pilot program that allows DOD R&D-performing institutions to suggest and implement management reform initiatives is extended through fiscal year 2027. [Sec. 216]

Ringfence for discretionary R&D. A prohibition on NNSA labs using Laboratory-Directed R&D funds to cover overhead costs is extended by five years. [Sec. 3162]

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