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Rare bipartisan consensus on innovation must lead to increased NSF support

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For what seems like the first time in years, innovation is having a bipartisan moment. 

Congress has spent months grappling with growing concerns over international competitiveness, underinvestment in research, and existential challenges like a global pandemic and climate change. But as the focus this fall shifts to spending and appropriations, Congress shouldn’t lose sight of the Senate’s U.S. Innovation and Competition Act and the House’s National Science Foundation For The Future Act: Both bipartisan legislation that passed the Senate and House respectively that would supercharge the National Science Foundation’s ability to promote innovation, alongside other key investments.

While much attention has focused on other aspects of the legislation, including authorization levels, sometimes overlooked are the bills’ important policy features. The House and Senate legislation would each enact a meaningful expansion of NSF’s portfolio and create new capabilities to add to the impact of the funding. The similarities between the bills are more significant than the differences, which legislators should speedily and constructively resolve. Getting across the finish line would be a bipartisan win and a boon for the country.

As we see it, the policy reforms for NSF are high-value in three ways: focus, flexibility, and translation.

First is focus. The House and Senate legislation both mandate creation of a new directorate with a mission focus, structured to maximize the impact of “use-inspired” research. This is a good idea: Evidence suggests such an arrangement can be an effective means of boosting research impact and economic productivity alongside more traditional basic science, which would remain NSF’s bread and butter.

There are differences between the chambers in the exact nature of this mission. The Senate proposes a primary focus on global competitiveness in high-tech sectors, in a direct response to China. The House bill recognizes this mandate but extends it, with additional focus on societal challenges like climate, national security and inequality.

These are worthy goals, and Congress needs to find a path to proceed. One approach might be to allow multiple focuses but with an emphasis on high-tech competitiveness. But it’s important to recognize that many research areas could advance multiple missions. For example, advancing the science of materials for clean energy is good for the climate and for competitiveness, while excellence in advanced fields like artificial intelligence (AI) confers not just an economic edge, but a national security one. Further, linking mission investments with policy for regional competitiveness, like the tech hub proposals also in play, could foster a more even distribution of the economic benefits. 

The second reason the bills’ reforms would be valuable is that they permit and encourage greater experimentation and flexibility in research funding approaches. The traditional NSF system provides a highly effective means of advancing science, but varied funding models may also achieve significant impact or promote risk-taking, especially in light of the new directorate’s mission focus. Different models may also lead scientists to conceive different research problems, and open doors to projects with different time, resource, or personnel demands than are typically possible.

Past experience provides some tantalizing evidence that innovative funding models can have positive effects for scientists, for research and for technological innovation. But there is much to learn about such models and no silver bullet. New funding approaches should thus be coupled with rigorous evaluation to ensure quality and assess impact.

The third attribute of the bills is that they would create new foundations for translation. Implicit in both bills is the recognition that simply doing research here in the U.S. isn’t enough: the fruits of federally-funded research need to translate into world-leading domestic industries and practical solutions for the challenges confronting Americans. This can be achieved by creating partnerships with universities, firms, and other stakeholders, increasing focus on technology transfer, broadening the geographic research base and establishing regional technology hubs to help industries in all areas of the country benefit. NSF has already been moving somewhat in this direction. Notably, the agency’s budget proposes to establish regional innovation accelerators in FY 2022, and the agency continues to establish a network of catalytic AI institutes.

These are not the only strengths of this legislation. Both bills protect and expand NSF’s core basic science activities significantly, themselves critical sources of excellence across the scientific spectrum. By preserving the knowledge reservoir upon which focused innovation can thrive, the bills add strength to strength. NSF’s education and research infrastructure investments would also rightly be strengthened.

The passage of these bills in the House and Senate were bipartisan milestones, prompting optimism about broader investments in science, innovation and infrastructure. Now is the time for Congress to seal the deal. 

Matt Hourihan (mhouriha@aaas.org) is the director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dan Correa (dcorrea@fas.org) is acting president of the Federation of American Scientists and director of the Day One Project.

Tags National Science Foundation National Science Foundation Science and technology in the United States Science and technology studies Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics U.S. Innovation

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