by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Senate Commerce Committee last week voted 24–4 to advance legislation that would massively increase funding for technology-oriented research at the National Science Foundation. The bill, known as the Endless Frontier Act, is a particular favorite of Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.). But the basic idea behind it has broad support across party lines, particularly as a way to respond to China’s growing technological prowess. It may get a vote on the Senate floor as soon as this week, and in some form it has a pretty good shot at ultimately getting enacted.
But “in some form” is no small caveat. The committee markup made clear that the particular shape and scope of the bill are very much in flux. They may well change again on the floor, and surely will in negotiations with the House, where a related but different measure has already been taken up.
It’s a good thing that the details remain unsettled. The idea behind the legislation is a good one, broadly speaking. But legislation cannot stop at speaking broadly, and in several important respects the Senate bill risks mistakes that could do real harm.
The bill has many parts, but at its core as originally envisioned has been a proposal to inject more than $100 billion into the budget of the National Science Foundation over the coming five years to support technology-oriented research in areas such as artificial intelligence, semiconductors, quantum computing, biotechnology, energy research, and others. That kind of funding would be a massive boost to the agency’s budget, which was $8.5 billion this past year.
The NSF supports vital basic research, and providing it with more resources to do that makes a lot of sense. But that kind of immense infusion of money would be transformative in ways that have to be thought through.