Thursday, May 28, 2020

A Major Reboot for the National Science Foundation?

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has re-introduced a bill that has been kicking around Congress in various versions for years, called this time the Endless Frontiers Act.  The basic idea is to dramatically expand the NSF but to refocus its efforts on potentially commercial technology. 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) would get a sweeping remake—including a new name, a huge infusion of cash, and responsibility for maintaining U.S. global leadership in innovation—under bipartisan bills that have just been introduced in both houses of Congress. 
Many scientific leaders are thrilled that the bills call for giving NSF an additional $100 billion over 5 years to carry out its new duties. But some worry the legislation, if enacted, could compromise NSF’s historical mission to explore the frontiers of knowledge without regard to possible commercial applications. 
The Endless Frontiers Act (S. 3832) proposes a major reorganization of NSF, creating a technology directorate that, within 4 years, would grow to more than four times the size of the entire agency’s existing $8 billion budget. NSF would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation, and both the science and technology arms would be led by a deputy reporting to the NSF director. 

Since this is the American Congress, you knew there had to be elements of the plan aimed at spreading the wealth around the country:

The bill calls for directing the biggest slice of the additional $100 billion that NSF would get to an unspecified number of university-based technology centers pursuing fundamental research in 10 key areas. The centers would work to develop prototypes of high-tech products and processes that companies could eventually bring to market. 

The legislation also specifies additional investments in education and training activities, facilities to test out all manner of new technologies, and boosting the budgets of other NSF directorates carrying out basic research that would enhance development of those technologies, including a better understanding of their social and ethical implications. Another section of the bill would authorize the Department of Commerce to spend $10 billion on 10 to 15 regional technology hubs. Those hubs are designed to foster innovation in areas outside the country’s current tech hot spots.

One aim of the plan is to make the NSF more like DARPA, the Defense Department agency that has gotten much praise over the years for turning wild ideas into functioning technology. 

Passage of the legislation could significantly alter how NSF operates. In particular, agency officials would have the authority to adopt some of the management practices used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Department of Defense, known for its agility and focus on tangible, deadline-driven results. “The new [technology] directorate can run like DARPA if NSF wants it to,” says one university lobbyist familiar with Schumer’s thinking.

The politicians who have signed onto this plan talk about China all the time – the challenge of China, the Chinese threat, etc. – so this seems like a return to Cold War thinking about science. But, hey, that got us to the moon. At least a few Republicans are on board, so maybe this new Cold War will get some bipartisan action out of Congress like the old one did.

It also strikes me that this is a product of our collective decision to not care at all about budget deficits any more. I guess some people in Congress have thought, well, as long as we are going to throw billions around like there is no tomorrow, we might as well throw some of it at the technological future.

1 comment:

Shadow said...

Aren't we finally seeing this kind of initiative and foresight with vaccines? The government partnering with private biotech companies to develop covid-19 vaccines while guaranteeing purchase of millions of doses of vaccines, even if they don't work, from vaccine manufacturers increases the chances of a quicker solution and immediate availability of doses for the ones that work. Haven't seen this kind of government-private enterprise partnering in a long time. This is the future.