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Massive science funding bill passes US Senate, but Chinese attention worries researchers

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking at a press conference in Washington, DC.

Senator Chuck Schumer, who championed the Innovation and Competition Act, speaking at a press conference.Credit: Michael Brochstein / ZUMA / Alamy

The US Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation that invests heavily in the US National Science Foundation (NSF). But the bill, which once aimed primarily at helping the United States maintain its status as a world leader through direct funding for research and development, now includes amendments aimed at preventing China from stealing or benefiting from the American intellectual property, a development that scientists fear to threaten. international collaborations.

In another major overhaul, Senate advocates from other US agencies that conduct research, such as the Department of Energy (DOE), have reduced the funding allocation originally intended for the NSF, arguing that they deserve also some of the money.

But if the legislation passes through the US House of Representatives, the NSF could still see its budget double over five years. Given the important role of agencies in funding basic research, researchers in science and policy praise this result.

While they have concerns, the researchers agree that an investment of this size in American scientific research is long overdue: funding for American scientific research has not kept pace with the country’s economic growth. Even if there had been no competition with China, the American people deserve the benefits that flow from these kinds of investments of taxpayers’ money, says Neal Lane, political science researcher at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, who is a former director of the NSF.

The bill will revive U.S. competitiveness and be one of the largest government investments in generations in innovation and manufacturing in the United States, said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who co-sponsored legislation, which was passed on June 8.

Reduced windfall

Legislation began in 2020 as the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), which proposed investing US $ 100 billion to create a technology directorate at NSF, an agency that funds nearly a quarter of all basic research supported by the federal government in American universities. The branch would serve as a hub to translate fundamental scientific discoveries into commercial technologies.

Given that the NSF’s budget had only increased gradually since the agency’s inception 70 years ago, many researchers and policy experts were delighted to see renewed interest in the agency. But the focus on the NSF was quickly eclipsed during early debates in Congress, when senators from states with national labs, and those who were members of committees representing agencies such as the DOE, began to compete for a share. multi-billion dollar pie. At the same time, US lawmakers have questioned whether the law provides adequate security measures to protect against spying from global competitors, such as China.

Budget Breakdown: Graphic showing proposed funding for the National Science Foundation of the United States under the Endless Frontier Act.

Source: Endless Borders Act (2021)

Ultimately, the Senate incorporated a revised version of the FTA into a much larger piece of legislation called the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (I&CA), which includes provisions that restrict and increase control over Chinese participation in government funded research. The EFA now authorizes an injection of 120 billion dollars in several American scientific agencies. The NSF would receive $ 81 billion of this amount over 5 years; 36% of this amount would go to the direction of technology and 10% to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and workforce development (see budget breakdown). The rest of the research funding would go to NASA, DOE, and the Department of Commerce.

Some are discouraged by the reduction in investment in an NSF technology branch. But others who feared that an intense focus on leadership would leave some basic research behind and thus undermine the central mission of the NSF see benefits in the new form of the bill. For example, Lane says the decrease in executive allocations gives the agency more discretion and flexibility to fund projects that could lead to innovative technologies through both basic science and research initiatives. applied.

Stay competitive

The increase in NSF funding is a big investment for the United States, especially as China continues to make its own big investments in research and development infrastructure, Lane said. China grants more science and engineering bachelor’s degrees than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And researchers in China publish more articles than those in the United States, increasingly in high impact journals.

But lawmakers reviewing the EFA say a huge increase in NSF funding could benefit China as well, and that concerns them. In recent years, the United States and countries like Australia have taken steps to protect technology and intellectual property that have been developed through international collaborations with China. The actions came in part in response to cases of suspected intellectual property theft and concerns over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s military-civilian merger strategy, which aims to co-opt academic research in China for military purposes.

I don’t want taxpayer dollars going through the front door and research going out the back door to China or other adversaries, said Sen. Rob Portman, a senior member of the Senate Committee on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs, in a recent Senate deliberations. Its additions to the I&C include the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, which would establish a Federal Research Security Council within the Office of Management and Budget to develop policies governing research and development grants.

Many university officials support increased funding for American science, but they are closely monitoring provisions in legislation to limit foreign influence on research. This includes a ban on federally funded researchers from participating in foreign talent recruitment programs, such as the Chinas Thousand Talents Plan, which recruits researchers to share their expertise and knowledge.

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) in Washington DC, a university research advocacy group, is particularly concerned about the requirement that foreign grants to universities of $ 1 million or more be considered by a committee that normally reviews massive trade investments. from foreign sources. It is not designed to examine short-term contracts or giveaways to universities, says Deborah Altenburg, associate vice president for research policy and government affairs at the APLU. She is concerned that if the amendment becomes law, the review process for universities could be prohibitive and time consuming.

Multiple congressional inquiries have highlighted the need for heightened awareness of national security concerns in partnerships with China and other foreign countries. But Denis Simon, executive director of the Center for Innovation Policy at Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina, warns that being too responsive to China’s investment strategies could prevent lawmakers from setting their own agenda for the future of research in the country. . The United States is at the forefront of international efforts to address global challenges, including climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is in the country’s interest to work with international partners such as China to find durable solutions, he said. Simon, who once served as executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in China, said increased scrutiny of Chinese scientists who collaborate with US research projects is already shaking the system.

There is still a long way to go before the I&C becomes law, including reconciliation procedures with similar legislation proposed in the House of Representatives. It is also uncertain at this point how the $ 120 billion boost to US agencies will be paid for, which Congress will decide.

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