Re-imagining the National Science Foundation


Senators Schumer and Young, and Representatives Gallagher and Khanna have introduced legislation that would, if enacted into law, bring major changes to the NSF. There would be a new name for the agency, a major re-organization of internal structure, and a lot more money. A lot.

The Endless Frontier Act was introduced in late May. The congressional offices have been working on this legislation for a long time, and have sought input from scientific societies and university leaders. The current annual budget for the NSF is \$8.3 billion (fiscal year 2020). This bill would infuse \$100 billion over five years, additionally, to the NSF. Relatively speaking, you can see, this is remarkable. The title of the bill is a nod to the 1945 report by Vannevar Bush, written for President F.D. Roosevelt, which served as the impetus to launch the NSF.

The press is beginning to cover this. It is a big deal, politically speaking, that it comes from the Democratic Leader’s office. It is a very loud signal of support for the NSF, coming from a very important congressional voice. Independent of whether or not this becomes law, it sends a clear message that the country is seriously underinvesting in science. Rhetoric used in the press release tells us that staying globally competitive (think China) is a priority and at least partial motivation for the bill.

In the next section of this post I list details of the proposed legislation. After that, I will tell you about some of my concerns, and ways they have been addressed in the bill.

What’s in the proposed law?

According to the summary of the bill found on Senator Schumer’s website:

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation (NSTF) and task a new deputy director with executing the new funding of fundamental research related to specific recognized global technology challenges with geostrategic implications for the United States.
  • The new NSTF would have two Deputy Directors – one to oversee existing NSF operations and the other to oversee a newly established Technology Directorate. The bill would provide the new Directorate with flexible personnel, program management, and awarding authorities.
  • The new Directorate would be given DARPA-like authorities, with the option to utilize program managers for selecting awardees.
  • NSTF would have a newly-created Board of Advisors for the Directorate for Technology to advise the Deputy Director on how to strategically advance technology in the 10 key focus areas. The new board would not have decision-making authority and the National Science Board would retain its existing authorities.
  • The authorization for the new Directorate would be $100 billion over five years to reinvigorate American leadership in the discovery and application of key technologies that will define global competitiveness.
  • An additional \$10 billion would be authorized over five years for the Commerce Department to designate at least 10 regional technology hubs, awarding funds for comprehensive investment initiatives that position regions across the country to be global centers for the research, development, and manufacturing of key technologies.
  • The Directorate would be authorized to coordinate with the Department of Commerce and other federal departments and agencies on initiatives to build the regional technology hubs and to connect disadvantaged populations and places to new job and business opportunities developing key technologies.
  • In addition to carrying out its own activities, the Directorate could partner and provide funding to the rest of NSF and to other federal research entities when that would advance its objectives. The Directorate would be prohibited from taking money from other elements of NSF.
  • The new Directorate would fund research in the following technology focus areas:
  1. artificial intelligence and machine learning
  2. high performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware
  3. quantum computing and information systems
  4. robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing
  5. natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention
  6. advanced communications technology
  7. biotechnology, genomics, and synthetic biology
  8. advanced energy technology
  9. cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies
  10. materials science, engineering, and exploration relevant to the other focus areas

We would see

  • Increases in research spending at universities (which can form consortia that include private industry) to advance U.S. progress in key technology areas, including the creation of focused research centers
  • New undergraduate scholarships, industry training programs, graduate fellowships and traineeships and post-doctoral support in the targeted research areas to develop the U.S. workforce
  • The development of test-bed and fabrication facilities
  • Programs to facilitate and accelerate the transfer of new technologies from the lab to the marketplace, including expanding access to investment capital
  • Planning and coordination with state and local economic development stakeholders and the private sector to build regional innovation ecosystems
  • Increases in research spending for collaboration with U.S. allies, partners, and international organizations

Potential drawbacks?

On the one hand, who doesn’t want more money for the NSF that increases the amount of research done at universities, and gives more support to undergraduate and graduate students?

On the other hand, the NSF is the only science funding agency of the federal government that is not mission driven. Research proposals submitted to the NSF are curiosity-driven. To me, it is important for the agency to retain its autonomy to invest in promising and potentially risky proposals regardless of field, regardless of potential marketability. Would this law change that? Former NSF Director Arden Bement says it might.

And, there are already investments by the NSF in these research areas. How would they be affected? Would other directorates lose money to fund the new one? Would money from the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) and the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), for example, be diverted to this new directorate? In fact, the new directorate would be allowed to provide funds to other divisions but money would not be allowed to flow the other direction.

The bill itself is 79 pages long. On page 39 we see that “Appropriations limitations,” and a reference to “Hold harmless.” This means that the \$100 billion would not be allowed if the normally appropriated amount (the amount that is now \$8.3 billion) is not in place. Immediately following on the same page, we see “No transfer of funds”; this ensures that money cannot flow from DMS, for example, to this new directorate. However, the new directorate could, for example, decide to direct money to cryptography research through DMS.

I appreciate that many mathematicians might not like the name change suggestion, or the focus on research that is not “basic” or “fundamental.” I hope, should this bill pass to law, that it is always remembered that translational research cannot happen without basic research. Many mathematicians, might find the “competition with China” argument troubling. Though I don’t know how the bill will be amending and changed as it works through Congress, I do feel confident that staff working on this bill have heard all these concerns.

The Endless Frontier Act bill text can be found here and a summary can be found here.



About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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