Science, The Endless Frontier

A bill is reintroduced to significantly expand, fund, and speed up United States (U.S.) research to ensure continued world technological leadership. A Senate committee will take up the bill later this week.

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Few things focus minds and clear away partisanship in Washington like the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The “Endless Frontier Act” would authorize over $100 billion for research into key technology like artificial intelligence, machine learning, supercomputing, semiconductors, robotics, and the like. Much of the impetus for a paradigm shift in U.S. research policy and funding comes from the PRC’s efforts to boost its companies and research capacity. There is acute pressure in Washington to fend off the PRC and maintain the U.S. lead in developing technology.

Meeting

A rare area of bipartisan agreement has yielded a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Todd Young (R-IN), and Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI): the “Endless Frontier Act” (S.1260/H.R.2731). On 12 May, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will hold a markup of the bill. And even if this bill should be enacted, funds would still need to be appropriated to achieve its goals.

Geek Out

The impetus for the bill is succinctly explained in the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s recent annual report to Congress:

In China’s most recent industrial policy wave, set by the 2016 Innovation-Driven Development Strategy, which includes the Made in China 2025 plan, policymakers have promoted the development of China’s digital ecosystem and accompanying regulatory architecture. The CCP believes China faces a rare historic opportunity to establish control over a cluster of revolutionary, networked technologies, including high-speed internet, sensors, telecommunications, artificial intelligence, robotics, and smart city infrastructure. Doing so could allow Beijing to leapfrog the United States and other powerful competitors and lead in the next generation of global innovation.

But, there is more to the bill than just increasing research and technology funding and efforts. The Endless Frontier Act also seeks to germinate funds and organizations that could create new clusters of technological ferment and innovation in the U.S. beyond places like Silicon Valley, California and Austin, Texas that would ideally create good jobs and foster manufacturing in the U.S., thus lessening dependence on supply chains that often emanate in the PRC.

In order to navigate the long bill more easily, here’s the table of contents the bill’s drafters omitted:

  • Section 1: Short Title: Page 2
  • Section 2: Findings: Page 2
  • Section 3: Improving Technology and Innovation Research at the National Science Foundation: Page 5
  • Section 4: Endless Frontier Fund: Page 53
  • Section 5: Strategy and Report on Economic Security, Science, Research, And Innovation to Support The National Security Strategy: Page 56
  • Section 6: Supply Chain Resiliency Program: Page 65
  • Section 7: Regional Technology Hub Program: Page 83
  • Section 8: Comprehensive Regional Technology Strategy Grant Program: Page 116
  • Section 9: Manufacturing USA Program: Page 131
  • Section 10: Technology Commercialization Review: Page 151
  • Section 11: Study On Emerging Science And Technology Challenges Faced By The United States And Recommendations To Address Them: Page 154
  • Section 12: Coordination of Activities: Page 158
  • Section 13: Person or Entity of Concern Prohibited: Page 159

The bill authorizes $112.4 billion for its activities (i.e., an Endless Frontier Fund), but the appropriations process would ultimately determine how much funding is actually provided. For any such funds, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy would administer the funding. While Congress would not direct OSTP or an administration on where funds must be spent, there are interesting hints as to where Congress thinks the money is to be spent. In a “Sense of Congress” section (which is not binding on the executive branch), the bill lists the places funds ought to be allocated:

  • $9,425,000,000 to the regional technology hub program under section 28 of the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act of 1980
  • $575,000,000 to the comprehensive regional technology strategy grant program under section 29 of the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act of 1980
  • $100,000,000,000 to the Directorate for Technology and Innovation of the National Science Foundation
  • $2,410,000,000 for the period of fiscal years 2022 through 2026 to the Manufacturing USA Program

The bill establishes a Directorate for Technology and Innovation (DTI) inside the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide leadership in critical technologies, address and mitigate challenges to U.S. technological leadership, enhance U.S. competitiveness, accelerate the transition of basic research to technology transfer, and engage the U.S. workforce. The legislation suggests the NSF create DTI program managers similar to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program but leaves the structure up to the NSF. The DTI would operate from the same authority as DARPA to pay scientists and other experts more than the civilian pay scale allows for.

The Endless Frontier Act requires the DTI to address “key technology focus areas,” a list the agency would need to revise every three years. The bill provides an initial list that contains all the technology fields one would expect given that the legislation is designed to address U.S. national competitiveness, especially against the PRC. The initial list is:

  • artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other software advances
  • high performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware
  • quantum computing and information systems
  • robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing
  • natural and anthropogenic disaster prevention or mitigation
  • advanced communications technology
  • biotechnology, medical technology, genomics, and synthetic biology
  • cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies
  • advanced energy, batteries, and industrial efficiency; and
  • advanced materials science, engineering, and exploration relevant to the other key technology focus areas

To revise the list every three years, the DTI would need to engage with other key agencies in the executive branch and make its revised list available to the public for comment. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would have the authority to allow the DTI to revise the list more frequently than the three-year interval in the case of “extraordinary circumstances.”

Nonetheless, the DTI award funds to recipients for research in key technology areas. Eligible recipients are universities and colleges, not-for-profit entities, and consortia led by one of the two previous classes of entities that may include a range of entities such as minority universities and colleges, “emerging research institution[s],” starts ups, small businesses, public private partnerships, and others. The DTI must also make awards to universities or colleges or consortia to establish university technology centers. Awards would also be made with the purpose of fostering the transfer of scientific breakthroughs in key technology areas from laboratories to the market. The DTI would work with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) “to establish and operate test beds and fabrication facilities to advance the operation, integration, deployment, and, as appropriate, manufacturing of new, innovative technologies in the key technology focus areas, which may include hardware or software” with the goal of accelerating “the movement of innovative technologies into the commercial market through the private sector.” Eligible entities operating such test beds could apply to the DTI for awards of funding. The bill spells out what percentage of funds must be used for which type of award (e.g., at least 35% of annual funding must be awarded to university test centers.)

The DTI could act in unison with other NSF entities and provide funds to other federal agencies and entities for research. The DTI would need to coordinate with other agencies in making awards, especially with NIST and the Department of Energy. The DTI must also provide scholarships for undergraduate, postgraduate, and postdoctoral research with an eye toward broadening participation among those populations that are underrepresented in the sciences.

The NSF would need to appoint a Chief Diversity Officer who would provide “advice on policy, oversight, guidance, and coordination with respect to matters of the NSF related to diversity and inclusion.”

Every year, OSTP would need to review, develop, and revise, as necessary, “strategy, programs, and resources” that “pertain to U.S. national competitiveness in science, research, innovation, and technology transfer, including patenting and licensing, to support the national security strategy.” OSTP would need to provide Congress with any new strategy that emerges from this review process. OSTP would also submit a report to Congress assessing many aspects of these efforts with an eye to determining how well these efforts are maintain the geostrategic position and national security of the U.S.

The Department of Commerce (Commerce) would establish “a supply chain resiliency and crisis response program.” This mission of the new program is to foster or establish resilient supply chains in key technology fields through partnerships with a range of U.S. stakeholders. Commerce would map and monitor key supply chains and look for opportunities for the U.S. and its allies to build more robust supply chains. Commerce would have latitude in how it achieved these goals. The agency would need to submit biennial supply chain resiliency and domestic manufacturing reports to Congress that identify problems and provide policy solutions

It is fairly obvious this supply chain effort, like most others, seeks to reduce U.S. dependence on supply chains rooted in the PRC as a means of reducing U.S. vulnerability to the PRC. It is also a response to supply chain issues exposed during the pandemic.

The Endless Frontier Act would establish a regional technology hub program through which Commerce would designate eligible consortia for awards to advance research in key technology in a region of the U.S. and other purposes of the bill. Key aims of this program are to foster the growth of regional technology centers to help the U.S. maintain its technological superiority that also create good paying jobs. The Secretary of Commerce would need to work through the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, in coordination with the Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology. Entities eligible to participate in consortia that may participate include universities and colleges, state, local or Tribal governments, economic development organizations, industry or firms, labor organizations, and others.

Commerce must designate between 10 and 15 regional technology hubs within the five years after enactment keeping rural and smaller areas in mind. The agency can award grants or enter into cooperative agreements with the federal share being a total of 90% in the first year and thereafter dropping by 5% a year except for tribal area where the federal match can be 100% or small and rural areas where the match can be 90%.

Commerce would also establish a comprehensive regional technology strategy grant program that would award funds to consortia to develop regional technology strategies, identify partners to execute these strategies, and other measures to achieve the larger goals of the Endless Frontier Act. The eligible consortia for this program are the same ones eligible for the regional technology hub program, and the cap on the federal share of financing these activities through a grant is similar to the regional technology hub program with 80% for most consortia, 100% for tribal led consortia, and 90% for small and rural areas.

The bill expands and reforms NIST’s Manufacturing USA Program “to support innovation and growth in domestic manufacturing.” Commerce must “establish policies to promote the domestic production of technologies developed by the Manufacturing USA Network.”

OSTP must review public private arrangements to develop and commercialize technology to determine the extent to which these efforts have benefitted U.S. and PRC manufacturing and technology. OSTP would also develop recommendations on how to maximize the benefit to the U.S. while minimizing the benefit to the PRC. 

Commerce would need to conduct a study on emerging science and technology challenges faced by the U.S. and make recommendations to address them. Commerce must contract with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to study “the 10 most critical emerging science and technology challenges facing the United States” and report on possible legislative or administrative action.

OSTP must coordinate all the activities established and funding by the Endless Frontier Act with the National Economic Council, the Office of Management and Budget, NSF, Commerce, and the Department of Energy. PRC entities identified as connected to or working with the PRC military would be barred from all funds and activities in the Endless Frontier Act.

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and michaelkans.blog, 2019-2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog, and michaelkans.blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Photo by Lucky Cungwa from Pexels

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