US Innovation Bill clears major hurdle in Senate with research provisions intact | Science

A massive bill to boost innovation in the United States took a big step toward becoming law this week after a bipartisan coalition of senators defeated an attempt to cut most of its research components. The latest version of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) also includes new language requiring the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Department of Energy (DOE) to distribute their research dollars more evenly across the country.

Tuesday’s 64-34 vote represents a major victory for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) and President Joe Biden, who have repeatedly urged Congress to pass legislation that would address growing investments by China in many emerging technologies. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of 16 Republicans, who stood up to their leadership to back changes that would benefit universities in their states.

The impetus for USICA was a proposal by Schumer in 2020 to authorize the spending of $100 billion over 5 years for a new directorate of technologies at the NSF that would help commercialize the basic research it funds. Over time, other research agencies have been added to the mix, including tens of billions of dollars in additional spending authority for the DOE’s Office of Science and a small increase for the National Institute of Standards and technology. Lawmakers also set a $52 billion subsidy for the semiconductor industry — real money, as opposed to authorized spending levels for science agencies — as well as numerous trade and security provisions.

The Senate passed USICA in June 2021, with support from 19 Republicans. In February, a bill with similar goals, called America COMPETES, passed the House of Representatives, although only one Republican supported it. This sparked negotiations between the two bodies to reconcile their differences.

Lawmakers were close to reaching a final deal last month when top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell (KY) ordered his team to stop talking with Democrats. McConnell saw the shutdown as a bargaining chip in his continued opposition to several of the Biden administration’s priorities, though many Republicans also opposed the spending — more than $250 billion — authorized in the bill. law. McConnell then gave consent for Schumer to move forward with legislation dealing only with the semiconductor industry, dubbed the CHIPS Act.

Schumer did not want to abandon the bill’s array of research provisions, which included a 5-year doubling of the NSF’s budget and a $20 billion investment in new management as well as a $10 billion network. dollars from regional technology centers funded by the Department of Commerce. . But he needed at least a dozen Republicans on his side to stop McConnell from using a filibuster to stop the bigger package, called CHIPS-plus, from coming to the vote. He got them through the work of his Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Todd Young (IN).

A major selling point for Republicans was the bill’s provisions requiring greater geographic, racial and institutional allocation of research dollars by the NSF and DOE’s office of science. The goal remains, but the wording has been changed from what the Senate passed last year to address concerns by many scholars that it was too prescriptive.

The earlier USICA version would have allocated 20% of the NSF’s total $8.5 billion budget and 20% of the DOE’s science office’s $7.5 billion budget to the agencies’ established program to stimulate research. competitive (EPSCoR). The program, which distributes its own grants to help states build research capacity, serves 28 jurisdictions (25 states; Washington, DC; Puerto Rico; and the US Virgin Islands) that receive minimal federal funding for research.

Proponents said the additional funding would level the playing field for resource-strapped institutions. But many universities that are not in EPSCoR states have fought the provision, saying it would unfairly prevent them from competing and distort NSF’s overall research portfolio by requiring a nearly 10-fold increase in the budget of EPSCoR, now $215 million. (The DOE operates a $25 million per year EPSCoR program.)

The new CHIPS-plus wording retains a quota but revises how the money will be allocated. Instead of giving it to EPSCoR itself, which distributes its own grants to help states build research capacity, the NSF and DOE have been ordered to increase the amount of money flowing to institutions. of these states through their regular competitive pricing process.

“These revisions will minimize the administrative impact on implementation…and maximize the impact of policy change where it matters, on actual research,” says Sen. Roger Wicker (R–MS), who drafted the provisions. initials.

The NSF would be required to increase its allocation of research funds to institutions in EPSCoR jurisdictions from the current level of approximately 13% to 20% by 2029. A similar target of 20%, to be achieved by 2025, would would apply to all types of NSF fellowships and training programs. DOE science programs should allocate at least 10% of their budget to EPSCoR state institutions.

The wording of the bill recognizes that these targets may be overstated. Both agencies are asked to do so “whenever possible,” and if the NSF fails, the director must explain why and come up with a plan to close the gap.

CHIPS-plus includes further provisions to authorize the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars each year on new programs aimed at building the research capacity of institutions that currently receive relatively little federal funding. This list includes historically black colleges and universities and those serving large numbers of underrepresented students, as well as predominantly white institutions that rank outside the top 100 recipients of federal research funds.

These provisions remain unchanged from those of USICA and COMPETES, although the House bill explicitly avoided quotas for fear of distorting the NSF’s much-admired system of awarding competitive grants.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who led the Senate contingent negotiating the terms of the compromise legislation, champions the importance of greater geographic distribution. “You don’t want there to be holes in our research business,” she said. Science the day after the election. “You never know where that next big hit, or the next Bill Gates, will come from. So the key is to build capacity across the country.

His fellow House negotiator, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), acknowledges that the latest USICA version does not include some things House Democrats wanted in the bill. “Compromises had to be made,” says Johnson, who is retiring this year after 32 years of service. “Not everyone will get everything they originally wanted, including me. But I hope all of my colleagues will come together…and get this legislation passed.

Tuesday’s vote wasn’t actually on the new language. Rather, it was a test vote on whether the CHIPS-plus package had enough support to move forward. A bill incorporating the actual text could be tabled in the Senate as early as next week. If approved, it would then go to the House for a positive or negative vote.

House Democrats believe they have the votes to pass it and send it to Biden, who has repeatedly urged Congress to act quickly on what he called the Bipartisan Innovation Act.

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