President Joe Biden wants to bolster the National Science Foundation as part of his massive infrastructure plan, which he outlined last week in Pittsburgh.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

The idea of massively expanding the budget and mission of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help the United States out-innovate China is gaining political momentum in Washington, D.C.

In Congress, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) is preparing to introduce a revised version of bipartisan legislation that would create a technology directorate at NSF and boost its funding by $100 billion. The changes address fears voiced by academic leaders that the new unit might disrupt the agency’s culture and dilute NSF’s ability to support basic research at universities.

On 31 March, President Joe Biden lined up behind the concept, including both the new directorate and a $50 billion bump for NSF in his $2.3 trillion proposal to upgrade the nation’s aging infrastructure. And late last month, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), chair of the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, also backed both a new directorate and a larger NSF budget as part of a bill reauthorizing programs at the agency, which currently has an $8.5 billion budget.

Congress is expected to begin hashing out the legislative details as early as next week. And Biden’s vocal support for revamping NSF makes it more likely that something will happen. “I’d say that things are coming together amazingly well,” one university lobbyist says. “It was a big win to get the president’s support.”

Media coverage of Biden’s infrastructure plan has focused on rebuilding roads, bridges, mass transit, and housing. But in his Pittsburgh speech to labor union members, Biden also asked Congress to spend $180 billion on “technologies for the future.”

That investment would include $35 billion for several agencies to combat climate change, as well as to create an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate (ARPA-C) to commercialize promising technologies. The plan also calls for a $40 billion upgrade to the nation’s federal and academic research facilities, with one-half of the money going to the nation’s more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities. The plan, Biden said, represents “the biggest increase in our federal nondefense research and development spending on record.”

For many academic researchers, however, the most compelling news was Biden’s support for beefing up NSF, the nation’s second largest research funding agency after the National Institutes of Health.

The size of any NSF budget increase, including how much would go to the new directorate, is still very much up in the air. Schumer’s original bill, introduced in May 2020, would have allocated $100 billion to the new directorate over 5 years, including $35 billion in each of the last 2 years. But the latest version, circulated last week, would instead give the money to NSF as a whole, with the new directorate receiving “not less than $2 billion a year.”

The House bill proposes more modest growth for NSF, roughly doubling its overall budget to $18 billion by 2026. The directorate would be launched with $1 billion and grow to $5 billion over 5 years.

Biden’s proposal appears to fall somewhere between the two bills. A fact sheet accompanying his speech asks legislators “to invest $50 billion in NSF, creating a technology directorate that will collaborate with and build on existing programs across the government.” It does not specify a budget timeline, although many of Biden’s infrastructure spending plans are spread over 8 years. A White House aide says the new directorate would get most of the proposed $50 billion, which would supplement whatever Congress appropriates for NSF in the annual budget process.

New money, expanded mission

The Endless Frontier Act would authorize $100 billion over 5 years for the National Science Foundation (NSF). An undefined amount of the money would go to establishing a new technology directorate, which would apportion its spending across several areas.

Academic research centers on 10 key technologies35%
Student support15%
Existing NSF programs15%
Grants to states with little NSF funding12%
Technology testbed and fabrication facilities10%
Help grantees commercialize discoveries5%
Unspecified8%

U.S. Senate

Whatever the amount, proponents of the new directorate say it is needed to counter aggressive technology investments by China and other economic competitors. Schumer’s bill, The Endless Frontier Act (EFA), is named after an influential 1945 report to then-President Franklin Roosevelt that led to the creation of NSF. And the bill praises NSF’s 70-year history of funding research that has fueled U.S. economic growth and national security. But proponents say what it takes to do that has changed over the years, and that the bill is the right response to the current challenges facing the country.

“Just doing more of the same will not get us where we need to be,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology President L. Rafael Reif wrote last year in one of many pieces advocating for the EFA legislation. The new technology directorate belongs at NSF, he adds, “precisely because it has been so successful. … It will give NSF a different way of approaching problems; to some extent, a different way of selecting and managing projects.”

However, some academic leaders worry that an additional mission could hamper NSF. Under the original Senate bill, the new directorate would have quickly become several times larger than the combined size of NSF’s seven existing research directorates. They also fretted about language suggesting it would operate in a more freewheeling fashion, akin to the vaunted Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where program managers rely heavily on their own judgment in making awards and can terminate projects abruptly if grantees fail to meet interim milestones. Critics also took issue with Schumer’s plan to give the directorate its own deputy director—a higher rank than those leading the existing directorates—and a board of advisers that could set policies on what and whom to fund.

That structure “would promote a collision of cultures within the NSF,” warned a group of prominent researchers and academic leaders that included Nobel laureates David Baltimore and Harold Varmus. In a February letter, the scientists also urged Schumer to avoid a steep budget ramp-up and instead move at a pace “commensurate with the long-term nature of scientific work.”

Last month, seven former NSF directors met with Schumer’s aides after writing him a letter that expressed support for the EFA, but also suggested giving NSF greater flexibility. “We are confident that NSF can meet the goals of this proposed legislation and deliver the expected outcomes if given sufficient resources and discretion in implementation,” they wrote without mentioning the new directorate by name.

Schumer appears to have taken the advice to heart. The revised Senate bill, which could be introduced as soon as next week, makes the management structure of the new directorate identical to the rest of NSF’s. It neither provides a timetable for the directorate’s growth nor mandates its final size. Schumer also dropped the idea of changing NSF’s name to the National Science and Technology Foundation, a nod to scientists who were worried that he wanted to dismantle the agency they know and love.

The new bill is also considerably larger. It retains a proposed $100 billion for NSF and $10 billion for a network of regional technology hubs to be created and run by the Department of Commerce. But it adds $10 billion to expand two manufacturing programs run by the department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. It also gives the department an additional $70 billion to stand up a program to strengthen and protect supply chains needed to support technologies critical to U.S. economic and national security.

Despite the emerging consensus on the need to revamp and expand NSF’s mission, many hurdles remain. The House and Senate bills only authorize spending levels, with appropriations panels having the final say. That’s why proponents are eager to see what Biden requests for NSF in his first budget to the Democratic-controlled Congress, expected in the next month. That proposed budget could also answer another big question for researchers: where the new ARPA-C entity would be housed and how it would operate.

How to pay for the massive boost for NSF—and for the trillions of dollars of other infrastructure investments Biden desires—remains a sticking point. Republicans and some moderate Democrats have vowed to fight Biden’s proposal to raise the money by rolling back some of the corporate tax cuts enacted under former President Donald Trump. And if Congress rejects Biden’s infrastructure plan, it’s hard to imagine legislators approving a massive increase for NSF.