As the newly renamed United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) (formerly known as the Endless Frontier Act) is considered on the Senate floor, an alternative competition bill is making its way through the House. The bipartisan National Science Foundation (NSF) for the Future Act (H.R. 2225) is aimed at strengthening American competitiveness through research and development (R&D) investments and improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and training. Broadly speaking, the two bills are focused on the shared goal of expanding NSF R&D funding to best position the United States on the global stage, but the Senate and House bills contain a few key differences.
Led by House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK), the NSF for the Future Act’s key provisions include:
- Creation of a Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions within the NSF to support use-inspired research, facilitate commercialization of federally funded research, and expand the domestic pipeline of students and researchers in areas of national and societal importance. The Directorate would be responsible for establishing up to five research focus areas that take into account the following societal challenges: climate change, global competitiveness in critical technologies, cybersecurity, national security, STEM education and workforce, and social and economic inequality.
- Expansion of NSF R&D investments, including in critical research-enabling equipment and infrastructure.
- Improving STEM education and training, including investments in STEM education programs, expanded data collection on the STEM workforce, supporting policies to encourage mentoring and professional development of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and a pilot program to expand opportunities for students attending minority serving institutions.
- Addressing security risks by requiring researchers receiving federal funding to prepare statements on possible security risks and providing guidance to researchers on training and resources that can be used to better understand and mitigate these risks.
In contrast to the Senate USICA, the House NSF for the Future Act is less costly, which may appeal to some skeptics of the Senate bill who have criticized the bill’s large price tag. Overall, the House bill authorizes approximately $72.5B to the NSF over five years, as compared to the Senate bill whose latest version clocks in at over $160B over five years. The USICA also creates a new NSF directorate—the Directorate for Technology and Innovation—but the Senate bill prescribes ten specific “key technology focus areas” while the House bill includes technology but also focuses more broadly on climate change, inequality, national security, and education and workforce issues.
The House has taken steps to advance the NSF for the Future Act, including a recent mark-up in the Subcommittee on Research and Technology of the House Science Committee. During consideration of the bill, a number of amendments were offered and passed, including provisions to broaden geographic diversity in R&D and address cybersecurity training and workforce development needs. The Subcommittee unanimously voted to report the bill favorably and it now advances for consideration by the full committee.
Renewed attention to these competition bills as they both make their way through Congress has revealed tensions in the two chambers on how best to accomplish their shared goal. Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), who co-sponsors both the House companion bill to the Senate bill (H.R. 2731), as well as the NSF for the Future Act, has expressed optimism that any differences between the USICA and the NSF for the Future Act could be worked out in conference. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has directed committees to work on a direct House alternative to the Senate competition bill and committees are engaging in that process now. The Senate is expected to vote on final passage of the USICA before the Memorial Day recess. It will then be up to the House to pass its own alternative bill before the conferencing process can begin or to take up the Senate passed bill if it does, in fact, pass next week.