Huge boost for US science funding inches closer to reality

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Huge boost for US science funding inches closer to reality

Left to right: Senator Chuck Schumer, U.S. President Joe Biden, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walk through the Hall of Columns.

US President Joe Biden (centre) walks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The House and Senate must now reconcile their two bills, each aiming to boost US competitiveness.Credit: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty

The US House of Representatives today approved a bill that could inject tens of billions of dollars into federal research agencies in a politically charged effort to maintain US leadership in science and technology.

The America COMPETES Act is the latest iteration in a series of bills that would, among other things, increase funding to US science in an attempt to keep up with China’s growing influence on the world stage. Researchers say, in particular, that a budget increase slated in the bill for the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds a significant chunk of basic academic research in the country, is long overdue. Researchers are divided, however, over measures added to the bill to keep China at bay, including limits on some foreign funding and talent recruitment programmes.

The bill’s passage does not guarantee that more grant money will end up in the pockets of US-based researchers anytime soon: lawmakers in the House must now negotiate a compromise bill with their counterparts in the US Senate, which passed its own version of the legislation last year. And although both bills would immediately appropriate funding for semiconductor science, other funding recommendations will need to be approved through the standard federal budget process.

“The money is not going to start flowing the minute this bill passes,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of public affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland. The bill, she says, is “aspirational”, which she applauds, “but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done”.

Under pressure

COMPETES is the House’s response to a Senate bill, called the US Innovation and Competition Act, that passed in June 2021 and similarly calls for more US science funding and includes provisions to protect foreign governments from benefitting from US research. Both bills will now head to a conference committee, in which lawmakers will reconcile differences between them to create a final version of the legislation.

As it stands, COMPETES would authorize a more than doubling of the NSF’s budget to about US$18 billion over the next five years, a goal that has long been on the wish list of US researchers. It would also authorize an increase to the budget of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science to about $11 billion, which funds the physical sciences in areas such as fusion research. It also directly appropriates $52 billion for semiconductor manufacturing and research and development. Semiconductors are used in everything from cars to smart phones and are a foundational part of the modern world, but have been in short supply in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because most are produced outside the country.

For many researchers who spoke to Nature, however, the most exciting part of COMPETES is that it promises to alleviate some of the pressures faced by the scientific community. In 2020, only 28% of grant proposals to the NSF were funded. Rita Colwell, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland College Park who headed the NSF between 1998 and 2004, says that far more of the proposals submitted by researchers merit funding than the agency is able to provide. Colwell says that adding money to the NSF’s pool will benefit up-and-coming researchers, who often get passed over.

“Right now, we have a lot of bright young people who are scrambling for funding,” Colwell says. “It’s clear to me that doubling the NSF budget is rational, reasonable and much needed.”

Promises, promises

Still, some are sceptical that the bulk of the funding provided in the bill will ever materialize, pointing to historical precedents. In 2007, US Congress passed similar legislation, signed into law by then-US president George W. Bush, intended to boost US science funding, also called the America COMPETES Act. But most of the promised money never made its way to science agencies.

The 2007 economic recession in the United States left Congress scrambling to make cuts to federal funding. Money that had been earmarked for science agencies in the bill but not yet formally appropriated was one casualty.

“We should not repeat the error of the 2007 COMPETES legislation, where funding in the name of enhancing US competitiveness was authorized, but never actually appropriated,” says Toby Smith, vice president for science policy and global affairs at the Association of American Universities in Washington, DC. “We need to do more than pay pure lip service to increasing support for US science and innovation. We need to actually do it.”

Research security

Not all parts of COMPETES are threatened by the ebb and flow of federal budgets. Some provisions are unattached to funding and are instead aimed at reducing the chance of US research benefitting foreign governments such as China’s. COMPETES would ban researchers who receive federal grants from also participating in “malign” talent programmes hosted outside the country. It also proposes lowering the value of foreign gifts that universities must disclose to US agencies from which they are receiving research funds.

Stephen Ezell, vice president of Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank in Washington DC, says that measures such as these are warranted, to avoid technology developed in the United States from ending up in the hands of the Chinese military.

But other experts worry that attempts to restrict the relationship between Chinese and American researchers may stifle scientific research. “The United States looks like it’s trying to disengage,” says Nicholas Vonortas, an economist at George Washington University, in Washington DC. “We need to be leaders in science and technology. Leaders cannot be closed.”

As COMPETES heads into conference to be reconciled with the Senate’s version of the bill, the fate of a promised US science funding boost remains up in the air. But even if the full bump doesn’t materialize, “any increase is welcome and needed”, Colwell says. “And the more that can be afforded, the better.”



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