Science Policy in 2022: 10 Stories to Watch

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FYI presents its annual list of 10 science policy stories to watch in the year ahead.

VLA at sunrise

Sunrise at the Jansky Very Large Array radio astronomy facility in New Mexico.

(Image credit – NRAO / AUI / NSF)

The year ahead could be a historic one for U.S. science and technology policy, with Congress continuing to debate proposals such as the creation of a new National Science Foundation directorate and an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. Lawmakers are also still pushing special multiyear funding measures that could send billions of dollars to science agencies such as NSF, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Commerce, on top of what has already been provided through pandemic recovery funding and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Nonetheless, there remains considerable disagreement around the proposals on the table and the window for ambitious action may be short, given the approach of the November midterm elections. Developments that appear imminent can always disappear over the horizon, and, as ever, surprises are to be expected.

Here are 10 issues FYI will be watching in 2022.

Innovation policy puzzle still in pieces

In 2021, Congress advanced several efforts to support technology innovation. Seeking a quick bipartisan victory, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) teamed with Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) on legislation to establish a National Science Foundation directorate and regional innovation hubs that would prospectively focus billions of dollars on key technology areas. The bill was rolled into a package called the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act and passed the Senate, but it was ultimately sidetracked in the face of competing priorities and disagreements with House lawmakers over matters such as the role of the NSF directorate and how to reduce geographic concentration of R&D funding. It is now awaiting action by a conference committee. Tied up with it is $52 billion in direct funding to launch initiatives to support U.S. semiconductor production and R&D that were authorized a year ago in the CHIPS for America Act. However, about $25 billion for energy technology development and demonstration is already in the books via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Department of Energy is gearing up to assemble an expansive portfolio of large-scale projects. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is also taking some actions on its own, such as allocating $1 billion from pandemic recovery funds to support “regional industry clusters” and exploring policies to bolster critical industries and supply chains for strategic technologies.

Science agency funding up in the air 

Many federal R&D programs could receive major funding boosts once Congress completes its appropriations process for the current fiscal year, but Democrats have yet to secure sufficient support from Republicans, who have objected to the scale of proposed spending increases for non-defense programs. Federal agencies have been operating at close to their fiscal year 2021 budget levels since the start of the fiscal year on Oct.1, and if a deal can’t be reached Congress could resort to a full-year stopgap measure that would squeeze many programs and prevent new initiatives from commencing. Yet, some new efforts are already ramping up using the influx of funds provided by the infrastructure law, and the Build Back Better Act could provide a windfall for some science agencies if Senate Democrats can revive its fortunes. The House-passed version of the bill allocates about $10 billion to R&D programs, including nearly $900 million for fusion energy initiatives. The draft Senate bill includes $5 billion for national laboratory infrastructure not in the House bill that DOE could use to patch budgetary holes in some projects while accelerating others. Both versions include $1.8 billion to launch the proposed NSF technology directorate.

Midterm elections loom

Democrats will feel increased urgency to move pending legislative initiatives across the finish line this year, since the November election could spell the end of their control of Congress. If Republicans take back either chamber of Congress, it would bury the possibility that Biden administration priorities will be funded using special spending legislation, though some bipartisan initiatives such as semiconductor incentives could have a longer shelf life. If the Senate changes hands, the confirmation of President Biden’s nominations is likely to slow down beyond its already-languid pace and some presently viable nominees could be rejected. There will therefore be considerable pressure to fill out agency positions this year. In addition, retiring lawmakers will have a final chance to make a mark. House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) has already stated she plans to use her last year to promote “inclusive innovation,” highlighting pending bills that aim to improve demographic analysis of the STEM workforce, build research capacity at minority-serving institutions and underserved geographic regions, and combat sexual harassment in academia

Research security policy at a crossroads

The Justice Department ran into headwinds last year with its China Initiative, as it lost one case that went to trial and dropped a number of others involving academics, though it did secure several plea deals and the conviction of Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber. The initiative has faced criticism from Asian American advocacy groups and leading scientists, among others, who argue it is discriminatory, focused on relatively benign misdeeds, and is causing widespread fear in the research community. Some of the anxiety has stemmed from continued confusion surrounding what kinds of activities scientists need to report to funding agencies and what exactly those agencies will consider problematic. Seeking to lend clarity on the first question, the White House has just issued guidance to science agencies on disclosure requirements and directed agencies to produce “model grant application forms” within three months. It is also promising to provide guidance by an unspecified date on the more contentious question of how agencies should use the information that scientists disclose to them. The guidance will not apply to federal prosecutors, but the Justice Department is reportedly preparing to delegate more enforcement of disclosure violations to science agencies.

US and China vie to influence key technologies

The U.S. government is ramping up efforts to shape global norms and standards for emerging technologies, and to pressure the companies that develop and sell them to do so in alignment with the country’s interests. The principal, if sometimes unspoken, target of these moves is the Chinese government, which has sought to advance its own influence over key technologies through initiatives such as “China Standards 2035” and its earlier “Made in China 2025” strategy. The Biden administration has pledged to build partnerships with democratic countries that share values about how to design and deploy technologies. It is also increasingly restricting exports to institutions in China that it deems are supporting repressive uses of technologies or the modernization of China’s military. The Commerce Department plans to advance further controls on emerging technologies as well as on "foundational technologies," pursuant to a 2018 law. In addition, the administration and Congress are considering restricting U.S. institutions’ ability to invest in China, a so-called “outbound” investment screening that would mirror the reviews conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S (CFIUS). Congress significantly expanded CFIUS in 2018, with an eye toward protecting sensitive technologies, and is debating whether to extend the process to the higher-education sector.

Climate research informing mitigation plans

Following climate change mitigation pledges made last year at the international summit in Glasgow, the Biden administration is expected to release a National Climate Strategy that outlines actions necessary to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. In addition, the U.S. is pressing to improve international emissions-monitoring systems to hold countries to account, as well as to expand the availability of climate data and planning tools to the public. For instance, a blueprint for expanding federal “climate services” has been produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency that has long considered establishing a dedicated climate services unit. The administration is also working to improve climate science’s ability to offer information specific to localized geographic regions and economic sectors, particularly through the fifth National Climate Assessment, slated for release in 2023. In addition, agencies across the government are continuing to appoint high-level climate advisers, and NASA has just combined the positions of chief scientist and senior climate adviser and named climate-modeling expert Kate Calvin to the role.

White House science team gains steam 

The White House will seek to pivot from contemplation toward action this year as it advances some of its top priorities for science and technology policy. The Office of Science and Technology Policy has been engaged in an extensive stakeholder-consultation process in anticipation of redoubling efforts to promote scientific integrity and transparency in federal programs as well as to bolster diversity, equity, and justice in the sciences and in the design and application of technology. This month, the office proposed new principles for protecting the integrity of science across all federal agencies, including ones without their own science portfolios. The Biden administration is also working to flesh out its Justice40 initiative, which aims to deliver 40% of the overall benefits of federal investment in areas such as clean energy and climate preparedness to disadvantaged communities. Meanwhile, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology will carve out its policy role as it starts to take on studies, including ones that address the high-level policy questions President Biden set out last year in a letter to his science adviser Eric Lander.

NASA turns a corner

Despite the doubts swirling around the long-term cost and schedule of NASA’s Artemis exploration program, it is set to take a long-delayed leap this year with the launch of its first, uncrewed circumlunar flight. The agency’s commercial robotic lunar lander program is also scheduled to make its first launches, following its own delays, joining an international host of uncrewed Moon missions. The ultimate goal of NASA’s lunar campaign is to develop a new paradigm for spaceflight that interweaves science, exploration, and commercial development, which will also be an important theme of the National Academies decadal survey for space-based research that is currently spinning up. Meanwhile, the latest decadal survey for planetary science is expected to appear this year, refreshing the priorities of a program that has rapidly doubled in size. NASA’s astrophysics program is beginning 2022 on a high note, as the James Webb Space Telescope takes its place in the firmament, opening a new era for space-based astronomy. With a new decadal survey now in hand, the program will soon turn to setting up a line of medium-scale “probe” missions while also laying groundwork for a future flagship telescope that will outstrip Webb’s capabilities.

Scientists seek ‘new normal’ as pandemic grinds on

Several scientific organizations abandoned plans to hold in-person conferences early this year due to the rapid spread of the omicron coronavirus variant, underscoring how the pandemic continues to roil the research community. Scientists are experimenting with new modes of work, such as hybrid meetings and expanded remote-access procedures for user facilities, but have also drawn attention to the harms of lost in-person networking and training opportunities. As research facilities strive to return to normal operations, there has been pushback on vaccination requirements, with some contractor-operated federal labs facing legal challenges. While economic recovery has staved off feared budgetary crises at universities, especially ones with large endowments, financial uncertainty still looms over the higher-education sector. Universities are also facing a continuing dropoff in undergraduate enrollments, and, while international enrollments are recovering following a steep downturn, they have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

White House queues up biomedical innovation push

A central piece of President Biden’s innovation agenda is establishing an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health to drive forward high-risk, high-reward research. The idea has gained some traction in Congress, with House and Senate appropriators both proposing funding for the new entity contingent on Congress passing separate legislation to authorize its creation. Two competing proposals to establish ARPA–H have been put forward in the House, reflecting disagreements over where to place it within the federal bureaucracy so as to foster the appropriate culture, and the Senate has yet to introduce its own bill. Biotechnology has also been looped into debates over U.S. national competitiveness, leading Congress to establish a National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology to further examine the issue. In addition, White House science adviser Eric Lander has proposed a $65 billion “Apollo”-style biopreparedness initiative to head off future pandemics. He has pushed for Congress to provide a downpayment on the initiative through the Build Back Better Act, but the latest version falls well short of his spending targets. 

FYI is an editorially independent science policy news service from the American Institute of Physics. If you are interested in republishing this content, please contact [email protected].