By Jay Landers

Legislation recently approved by the House aims to boost federal spending for U.S. research, innovation, and manufacturing. Titled the America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing, Pre-Eminence in Technology, and Economic Strength Act, or the America COMPETES Act, the $350 billion legislation (H.R. 4521) would increase funding significantly for such agencies as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Passed by the House on Feb. 4 by a vote of 222-210, H.R. 4521 was approved largely along party lines, with only one Democratic member voting against the legislation and only one Republican member voting for it. Because the Senate has passed its own bill on this subject, the House and Senate must resolve their differences as part of a conference, during which they craft compromise legislation. If the House and Senate pass the compromise bill, it will go to the White House for the president's signature.

Promoting competitiveness

As for its big-ticket items, the recently passed House bill would appropriate $52 billion to promote semiconductor fabrication in the United States and support research and development pertaining to semiconductors. H.R. 4521 also would authorize $45 billion in federal spending on actions to improve supply chains around the country by preventing shortages of critical goods.

The legislation is “critical to the future health of our American science and innovation enterprise and our nation’s competitiveness,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the lead sponsor of H.R. 4521, on the House floor on Feb. 2, according to a summary provided by the committee.

“The United States has long been a beacon of excellence in science and innovation,” Johnson said. “However, we cannot rest on our laurels. It is time for us to revitalize federal support for the kinds of research and development initiatives that enabled us to achieve that excellence in the first place. And we need to take a holistic approach that encompasses everything from the state-of-the-art research and development taking place at our national labs to advanced manufacturing facilities that employ and support communities across the nation.”

A boost for the NSF

Among its provisions pertaining to science and engineering, the legislation would reauthorize the NSF and boost its overall funding in fiscal year 2022 to $12.5 billion, an increase of $4 billion, or 47%, over its FY 2021 funding level. Authorized funding for the NSF would increase to $14.6 billion in FY 2023 and eventually reach $17.9 billion in FY 2026.

In the legislation, Congress directs the NSF to fund competitive grants for research into multiple areas, including research “to improve our understanding of the climate system and related human and environmental systems,” according to the text of the bill.

The NSF also would be directed to fund research into the “food-energy-water system” as well as the study of risk and resilience. Research regarding the latter topic would aim to “advance knowledge of risk assessment and predictability and to support the creation of tools and technologies” to foster increased resilience.

One other research area that Congress would want to see funded by the NSF involves clean water. In particular, funding for such research should “support transdisciplinary research to significantly advance our understanding of water availability, quality, and dynamics and the impact of human activity and a changing climate on urban and rural water and wastewater systems,” according to the bill.

A new directorate

Currently, the NSF has directorates for seven areas: biological sciences; computer and information science and engineering; education and human resources; engineering; geosciences; mathematical and physical sciences; and social, behavioral, and economic sciences. H.R. 4521 would create an eighth directorate at the agency, the Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions.

The purpose of the new Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions would be to “accelerate collaborative, purpose-driven (research and development) to advance solutions to pressing societal challenges including climate change and environmental sustainability; global competitiveness; cybersecurity; national security; (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and workforce; and social and economic inequality,” according to a fact sheet on H.R. 4521 provided by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The legislation would authorize $1.4 billion in funding for the directorate in FY 2022.

More funding for NIST

Another federal agency that would enjoy a boost in funding is NIST. Under H.R. 4521, NIST would receive $1.4 billion in FY 2022, an increase of 36% over FY 2021 levels. Although most of this funding would go toward scientific and technical research and laboratory activities, $140 million would be directed to construction and maintenance activities. Subsequent years would see smaller but steady increases in funding for the institute.

The legislation would authorize NIST to conduct a $22 million study of the partial collapse of a 12-story condominium in Surfside, Florida, in June 2021, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 100 people. The purpose of this investigation would be “to understand the source of failure, to provide recommendations for how to rectify any shortcomings in existing building standards in order to prevent future similar disasters, and to inform future building codes for similar structures,” the bill notes.

Other sections of the law aim to boost participation of minority and rural populations engaging in STEM. “This legislation supports policy reforms, research, and data collection to identify and lower barriers facing women, minorities, and other groups underrepresented in (STEM) studies and research careers,” according to another fact sheet from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Provisions in H.R. 4521 “will enable us to create a strong and diverse STEM workforce, one that is ready to address the great societal and scientific challenges we face as a nation,” Johnson said on the House floor.

National strategy for science and technology

Seeking to improve the coordination of federal research and development activities, H.R. 4521 would direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the White House to develop a four-year comprehensive national strategy for science and technology.

To this end, the legislation would direct the OSTP “to complete a comprehensive quadrennial review that will provide an overview of the nation’s innovation landscape and provide policymakers, industry, researchers, and other stakeholders with unbiased data and analysis to identify the future needs, barriers, and opportunities for U.S. science and technology,” according to another fact sheet from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The legislation “also directs OSTP to take this analysis and develop a national science and technology strategy to provide recommendations for maintaining global leadership in science and technology.”

Conference pending

President Joe Biden’s administration has come out in favor of H.R. 4521. “This legislation is an important step to strengthen our supply chains, revitalize domestic manufacturing, and reinvigorate the innovation engine of our economy to ensure that the United States remains globally competitive in the 21st century,” said the White House’s Office of Management and Budget in a Feb. 1 statement of administration policy.

In June 2021, the Senate passed its own version of legislation similar in nature to the America COMPETES Act. Known as the United States Innovation and Competition Act (S. 1260), the $250 billion bill also would provide federal funding for U.S. semiconductor manufacturing and research and establish a new directorate within the NSF.

Given the many differences between the two bills, a House-Senate conference will be necessary to develop compromise legislation. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., expressed keen interest in having such a conference occur soon.

“I look forward to a bicameral conference process that builds on the broad bipartisan support of the Senate-passed U.S. Innovation and Competition Act to supercharge microchip manufacturing here in America, to fix broken and strained supply chains, and invest in the innovation needed to ensure the critical products of today and tomorrow are made in America,” Schumer said in a Feb. 4 news release. “We have no time to waste.”