Remember when your mother said you might choke if you crammed too much food into your mouth? In the weeks to come, Democrats in the U.S. Congress will find out whether that warning also applies to their ability to finalize sweeping legislation that promises to double the budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other key research agencies, pour money into high-tech industry, curb “malign foreign influence” on U.S. research, and root out sexual harassment in academic science.
The effort, designed to maintain the country’s technological edge over China, took a major step forward today when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the America COMPETES Act. The 2900-page bill must now be reconciled with a similar, comparably massive bill called the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act (USICA) that the Senate passed in June 2021.
But ironing out the differences will test the Democrats’ razor-thin majorities in each body. Although USICA (S.1260) was approved by a vote of 68 to 32, including 19 Republican senators, COMPETES (H.R. 4521) was supported by just one Republican and passed the House on a 220 to 210 vote. (One Democrat said nay.) Although key House Republicans have said they support many of the research-related elements in the bill, they strongly objected to other provisions, including language on trade and labor policy.
Negotiating a compromise bill acceptable to enough lawmakers–and President Joe Biden–to make it into law will be a complex task touching on a wide range of issues. They include how to allocate new research funds, how to protect U.S. research from foreign interference while also reshaping immigration rules to make it easier for the United States to attract foreign-born technical talent, and whether to take a more aggressive stance to combat climate change.
Both bills come with hefty price tags: $250 billion for USICA and $350 billion for COMPETES. And both include provisions that authorize the government to spend tens of billions of dollars on research across several federal agencies. The numbers are mostly aspirational; Congress would still have to approve most of the spending through its annual budget process. Higher education lobbyists hope legislators won’t repeat what happened in 2007 and 2010, when Congress failed to deliver promised big hikes in research spending that it had authorized.
The increased investments include adding an NSF technology directorate and doubling the agency’s overall budget over 5 years. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science and its national laboratories would get a similarly large boost. And the Department of Commerce would get $7 billion to establish a network of new regional innovation hubs. The nation’s semiconductor industry would receive $52 billion, with the bulk of the money used to increase manufacturing capacity but some also going to microelectronics research facilities.
Both bills call for tightening oversight of research collaborations with China and a handful of other countries deemed to exert a “malign foreign influence” on federally funded research. For example, both bills would prohibit scientists with federal grants from participating in Chinese talent recruitment programs and require universities to provide more information about any foreign gifts they receive. The two bills also seek to stamp out sexual harassment on college campuses, calling for a uniform policy on reporting allegations and findings to federal funding agencies.
But there are also important differences between the two bills on research policy. For example, the Senate wants NSF’s new technology directorate to focus on 10 key disciplines, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. In contrast, the House bill asks NSF to combat climate change, reduce economic and social inequality, and build a robust scientific workforce along with advancing strategically important fields.
“The Senate bill implies a trade-off between supporting key technologies to maintain our competitive edge and improving the quality of life for all Americans,” says a Democratic staffer on the House science committee, which crafted many of the research provisions in the COMPETES bill. “But we think that technology is simply a means to an end, and that you can do both things.”
The House and Senate also have competing visions of how to spread federal research dollars more equitably across the country, including to institutions that enroll large numbers of students from groups traditionally underrepresented in science. The Senate bill requires that 20% of the money slated for NSF and DOE be spent in the roughly two dozen states that receive the fewest federal research dollars. In contrast, the House bill avoids any mandatory set-asides, instead creating new programs that target institutions in those have-not states.
The COMPETES Act would also change immigration policy to allow more foreign students to stay after they earn advanced degrees in science and engineering at U.S. universities. One provision would exempt them from the existing cap on the number of applications for permanent residency status. The bill would also create a new visa category for budding high-tech entrepreneurs. Those measures are likely to be opposed by lawmakers who want to shut off the flow of immigration, especially from China and other countries seen as economic and military foes, and the Senate bill contains no such changes.
The House bill includes a raft of provisions on climate change. For example, it would authorize a 2-year, $8 billion U.S. contribution to the United Nations’s Green Climate Fund, aimed at helping emerging economies respond to the climate crisis. It calls for spending $600 million annually through 2026 to help U.S. solar energy companies become “less reliant on solar components made in China.” And it would give the Department of State additional funds for climate-related foreign aid, and for developing a new 10-year strategy to mitigate global climate change impacts.
The House bill’s sweeping scope is its strength, says Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), chair of the House science committee. “With this legislation, we are making investments to build clean energy solutions, address the climate crisis, reinforce our national security, enhance our semiconductor manufacturing capabilities, and so much more,” Johnson said in kicking off debate on the House floor that ended this morning. “In short, we are acting to address the critical needs identified by the scientific community, industry, academia, and other stakeholders as what they need most to succeed in the 21st century.”
But the science panel’s top Republican, Representative Frank Lucas (OK), thinks Democrats overreached by ignoring the concerns of his colleagues. The COMPETES bill “undoes more than a year of bipartisan work by the House Science Committee to develop and pass comprehensive legislation to double investment in basic research,” Lucas said in floor debate. “[House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–CA)] hijacked good bipartisan bills dealing with U.S. competitiveness and countering the malign influence of China to pass another Democratic wish list that will go nowhere in the Senate.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they hope to negotiate a final bill by this spring. But with the November elections looming, and both bodies busy with other issues, including the Senate confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice, it’s not clear whether they can meet that goal.