Congress came very close to giving U.S. researchers a funding windfall in 2021. But the Democrats’ narrow majority in both houses and a united Republican opposition doomed efforts to pass three major pieces of legislation, each one containing billions of dollars for research. However, science advocates are cautiously optimistic that lawmakers, who return to work this week, could approve all three measures early this year.
Here’s the scorecard:
- Build Back Better (BBB), President Joe Biden’s signature social welfare legislation, which also includes money to better understand and confront climate change;
- The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), aimed at keeping the United States ahead of China in the global race for technological preeminence; and
- The set of 12 annual spending bills that set budgets for every federal agency. These bills would replace a current agreement to largely freeze spending levels at 2021 levels.
Lobbyists for universities and science groups are generally pleased that these proposals call for hefty—and sometimes historic—investments in research. But they worry Congress may not be able to finish the delicate negotiations needed within the next few months. That narrow time window exists because members are already starting to focus on the midterm elections in November that could see Republicans regain control of Congress. And once election concerns dominate, veteran politicos say, lawmakers generally balk at the horse trading needed to pass major legislation.
This sprawling $250 billion package has a champion in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY). And it has no vocal enemies, thanks in large part to Schumer’s willingness to accept any number of amendments from Republicans and Democrats during its yearlong journey through the Senate, which approved the USICA on a 68-to-32 vote in June 2021.
Schumer’s first draft was called the Endless Frontier Act, honoring a 1945 report by Vannevar Bush requested by then-President Franklin Roosevelt that led to the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF). At USICA’s core is a plan to authorize spending $26 billion over 5 years to create a new NSF directorate that would develop and commercialize key technologies, on top of significant growth in existing NSF programs. USICA would also authorize $17 billion over 5 years for research sponsored by the Department of Energy—a late addition to broaden its political appeal given DOE’s extensive network of national laboratories—and $10 billion for the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to create regional technology hubs across the country.
The House of Representatives has not taken up USICA. Instead, it has passed separate authorization bills for NSF and DOE’s Office of Science and begun work on a similar bill for NIST. Like USICA, the House bills generally enjoy bipartisan support and call for hefty spending on science but envision allocating it differently. The House’s NSF legislation, for example, would provide half as much for NSF’s new technology directorate but even more—$60 billion versus $54 billion in USICA—to enhance NSF’s existing activities.
USICA and the House bills also contain substantive language aimed at tightening oversight of federally funded research to ensure that governments considered hostile to U.S. interests, notably China, don’t take advantage of the traditional open exchange of scientific results across national boundaries. For example, USICA would bar federally funded scientists from participating in any of China’s foreign talent recruitment programs, stiffen penalties for their failure to disclose all sources of funding, and increase oversight of U.S. universities receiving gifts from foreign governments.
The House provisions regarding research security are not identical to USICA’s, and those differences are now being hammered out as part of ongoing negotiations on the overall legislation. The White House, which is now working on a governmentwide policy for improved research security that builds on a last-minute memorandum from former President Donald Trump, will also play a role.
Another looming battle in the USICA negotiations is over how best to foster more research activity in states with traditionally low levels. The Senate bill would require NSF and DOE to spend 20% of their research dollars in states in the bottom half of those rankings. That cohort currently receives just 3% of NSF’s research dollars, and less than 0.5% of DOE’s science funding, under the 40-year-old Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).
In contrast, the House bills don’t specify what portion of an agency’s funding should go to EPSCoR states. House lawmakers saw that approach as overly prescriptive and a flawed substitute to independent peer review for choosing the best research projects. Instead, the House version would create two new competitively funded programs for scientists and institutions in EPSCoR states.
The two bodies also have different views of what NSF’s new technology directorate should do. The Senate version lists 10 key technologies, including artificial intelligence and quantum science, that should be priorities, although it also tells NSF to annually review the list and revise as needed. The House version is less rigid, giving NSF leeway to define the fields most likely to contribute to U.S. competitiveness.
An important caveat regarding USICA is that, even if Congress ultimately approves the legislation, most of the funding it calls for isn’t guaranteed. That’s because it is what is known as an authorizing bill; Congress would still have to approve the spending through the annual appropriations process. (One exception is a $52 billion initiative within USICA to bolster the U.S. semiconductor industry, which would be funded by an emergency supplemental appropriation.)
Unlike USICA, the $2.2 trillion BBB package would, if passed, immediately allow new government spending. But BBB, which is seen by both parties as a test of Biden’s ability to advance his agenda, is much more politically contentious than USICA. It faces universal Republican opposition and will require the support of all 50 Democrats in the Senate to pass. So far, however, Biden has been unable to get them to agree on a final bill.
Most of the battles over BBB have focused on its efforts to strengthen the nation’s social safety net, including universal prekindergarten and expanded housing and health care benefits. But it also includes aggressive steps to reduce the devastating impacts of climate change and tens of billions of dollars for fundamental research. NSF would get $3.5 billion, for example, with half going to the new technology directorate. DOE science would receive almost $1 billion, and DOE’s applied research programs an additional $4.5 billion, whereas NIST would get $1.25 billion.
Those amounts were much lower than what was in Biden’s original $3.5 trillion blueprint. (The initial House allocation was $11 billion for NSF, for example, and $12.8 billion for DOE science.) But they are still substantial, says lobbyist Leland Cogliani, who tracks energy programs for Lewis-Burke Associates. “Build Back Better was supposed to be our savior, the rising tide that would lift all boats,” he says.
The House acted first on Biden’s pared-down proposal, approving it on 19 November on a party line 220-to-213 vote. The bill’s fate is now in the hands of the Senate, where Democratic leaders hope to pass it using an arcane process, known as budget reconciliation, that allows legislation to advance with just 50 yes votes, instead of the usual 60.
The biggest sticking point for Democrats has been Senator Joe Manchin (D–WV), who has long objected to the bill’s overall size. His latest declaration of opposition, on 19 December 2021, dashed Biden’s hope of achieving a pre-Christmas victory.
But many science lobbyists believe Manchin and the White House will ultimately strike a deal on a slimmed-down BBB—or a series of related bills—that is likely to retain many of its science and climate provisions. “Yes, if you compare it to a year ago, a lot of air has come out of the Build Back Better balloon,” says lobbyist Joel Widder, co-founder of Federal Science Partners. “But I think there will be a resurrection in January.”
And he and other science advocates are heartened by the fact that Manchin included $5 billion for DOE science when the Energy and Natural Resources Committee he chairs was asked last month to provide its input on the bill. “The research component—both in climate and in energy—has never been an issue for Manchin,” Widder says.
Annual spending bills
The media attention given to the BBB fight has obscured another important challenge facing Congress in the weeks ahead—adopting a budget for the 2022 fiscal year that ends on 30 September so that the government doesn’t shut down. Last fall, legislators took the increasingly common path of avoiding a shutdown by freezing spending at existing levels. But that temporary solution, called a continuing resolution, expires on 18 February.
Its adoption halted progress on 12 individual spending bills covering various clusters of agencies. And, for researchers, the stopgap measure cast doubt on the fate of healthy increases that lawmakers had proposed for key research agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, NASA, NSF, DOE, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NIST’s in-house labs.
But those increases won’t go into effect unless lawmakers agree on overall 2022 spending levels—which could be difficult. Pro-defense legislators, for example, want to boost Biden’s proposed minimal increase for military spending and to whittle down his sizable boost to domestic programs. (Science budgets historically have risen in step with an overall increase in domestic spending.) There’s also the perennial fight over retaining antiabortion language. If agreement can’t be reached, lawmakers could decide to sacrifice their authority to set spending on myriad programs in favor of a yearlong continuing resolution that would sidestep those contentious issues.
If Congress goes that route, scientists will need to shelve their expectations for a major increase in federal research spending this year. And they will have to hope that Biden’s 2023 budget request, which he is expected to send to Congress in early spring, once again asks for increases at most science agencies.
Optimism amid complications
Despite the ample complications and uncertainty surrounding USICA, BBB, and the annual spending bills, science lobbyists remain cautiously optimistic that research will get a boost from Congress this year. They concede that political battles have disrupted what the Biden administration and congressional Democrats had hoped would be an orderly, sequential legislative process that would have first provided guidance to federal research agencies through USICA, then used BBB to set overall spending levels for key agencies, and finally filled in the details with individual appropriations bills.
“That would have been the logical sequence,” says one veteran lobbyist and former congressional staffer. “But it’s probably not going to happen that way.”
Still, they see Schumer’s determination to finalize USICA, and the bipartisan support it has received, as a good sign. And they believe Biden has a reasonable chance of pushing some version of BBB through the Senate. “Biden is hell-bent on another significant legislative accomplishment before the mid-term [elections],” Widder says. “And the research provisions don’t have any enemies. I like its chances.”