Science advocates are pressing Congress to approve the large budget increases recommended by the CHIPS and Science Act.
President Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act into law on Aug. 9 at a ceremony on the White House lawn, hailing it as a “once-in-a-generation investment in America.”
The law will provide $52 billion to support the domestic semiconductor sector, which Biden said will coax companies to invest much more, citing commitments from Micron, GlobalFoundries, and Qualcomm that coincided with the signing, as well as plans previously announced by Intel.
Biden also highlighted the ambitious spending targets the bill sets for the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and National Institute of Standards and Technology, saying, “This increased research and development funding is going to ensure the United States leads the world in the industries of the future: from quantum computing to artificial intelligence to advanced biotechnology.”
However, unlike with the semiconductor funding, meeting those targets will depend on future appropriations. Aware that spending has fallen well short of such targets in the past, advocates are already lining up to push Biden and Congress to follow through.
Law renews push to expand NSF, DOE, and NIST
While the CHIPS and Science Act makes extensive revisions to policy across NSF, DOE, and NIST, the ultimate impact of the law will hinge on how much funding its initiatives receive in the years ahead.
In his remarks, Biden noted that federal R&D spending as a fraction of gross domestic product is now at less than half its peak of nearly 2% in the 1960s, when the Apollo lunar exploration program was underway. Pointing to competition from China and other countries, he said, “This law gets us moving up once again. It authorizes funding to boost our research and development funding closer to 1% of the GDP, the fastest single-year percentage increase in 70 years.”
Legislative authorizations set funding targets for actual appropriations, but they are not binding. A similar wave of concern over national competitiveness earlier this century led Congress to pass two major R&D laws, the America COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010, which likewise authorized major funding increases for NSF, DOE, and NIST. However, those plans were quickly overwhelmed by the politics of deficit control that followed the 2008 economic downturn and the Republican takeover of the House in 2011.
Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, reflected on that experience in an op-ed published the same day as the bill signing, writing, “We’ve been here before: in 2007, Congress authorized tens of billions of dollars of new investments in federal research only to fail to deliver on funding — at great cost to American innovation.”
He pointed to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science that estimates Congress has cumulatively spent $77 billion less on R&D than if it had met the 2007 COMPETES Act’s aim of doubling the agency budgets over seven years and then provided increases in line with inflation thereafter.
National Science Board preparing advocacy strategy for NSF
The National Science Board, a body of external experts that oversees NSF, is gearing up to press for the funding authorized in the CHIPS and Science Act. At a board meeting on Aug. 4, its chair Dan Reed referred to the task at hand as turning the “poetry of authorization into the prose of appropriation.”
The law recommends that Congress roughly double NSF’s budget over five years, with a significant portion of the money going to its new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) for efforts to spur key industries and craft research-driven responses to societal challenges such as climate change.
Board member Dario Gil, IBM’s director of research, explained at the board meeting that to recruit advocates he and others are looking beyond NSF’s “traditional academic constituency.” He noted for instance the regional economic development focus of the new TIP Directorate could broaden the agency’s usual base of support. He also argued that NSF plays a significant but underappreciated role in funding fields that are important for industry, such as computer science.
“It's important to activate those constituencies, where key business leaders of the most critical sectors in our economy or key leaders of our national security establishment [are] saying, 'I need that future. I need it today. I need a lot more of it. And the agency that can carry that out and can make it happen is the National Science Foundation.' Those are words that today are not coming out of those leaders,” he said.
Gil was among the semiconductor industry representatives who intensively lobbied Congress to appropriate the CHIPS funding. He currently chairs NSB's external engagement committee, which leads its communications with government, industry, universities, and the public.
Assuring the board that the advocacy push does not imply a lack of interest in the agency’s broader mission, he remarked, “I just want to state for the record that even though we will pick very select things that we need to communicate for very specific audiences to drive the maximum impact, it in no way [means] the board does not appreciate the full range of activities that happen in NSF.”
Fiscal year 2023 and 2024 appropriations will clarify outlook
Advocates’ first goal will be to convince Congress to meet the CHIPS and Science Act’s spending targets for fiscal year 2023, which begins on Oct. 1 but will probably not receive a final appropriation until late this year or even early next year.
Proposals already advanced by the Biden administration, the House, and Senate all undershoot those targets by billions of dollars. Moreover, the House and Senate proposals were assembled by Democratic appropriators without the input of Republicans, who will have a significant influence on the final outcome and have argued that proposed spending on non-defense programs is too high.
Meanwhile, Democrats on the House Science Committee are looking ahead to the administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2024, which is being assembled now and is due for release in February.
In a letter to DOE and the White House on Aug. 11, they argue the administration’s fiscal year 2023 request for the DOE Office of Science is insufficient to cover the needs of its research facility construction projects, reiterating points they and Republican committee members made at a hearing in April. While those projects are in line to receive a funding boost through the Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden signed yesterday, the amounts will not be enough to see most projects through to their completion.
The Democrats also assert the request is inconsistent with Biden’s commitment to increasing R&D spending overall. They argue the administration has not given a convincing reason for why it requested a significantly smaller proportional increase for the Office of Science relative to its requests for DOE’s applied R&D programs and other science agencies.
They urge the administration to embrace the fiscal year 2024 target in the CHIPS and Science Act, which is $2 billion more than the office’s current $7.5 billion budget. “It is imperative that we meet this historical moment with transformative investments in science and innovation, and that process begins with the president’s budget request,” they state.
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