WASHINGTON ― Congress would pump $100 billion into the National Science Foundation for research into artificial intelligence, quantum computing, advanced communications, robotics and more under a bipartisan proposal led by the Senate’s top Democrat.
The Endless Frontier Act, led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and announced Wednesday, would rename the National Science Foundation as the National Science and Technology Foundation and add a technology directorate with “DARPA-like authorities" to oversee research and make contract awards in select technology areas. The $100 billion would be spread over five years.
A typically divided Congress is uniting in its anger against China: The House on Wednesday was poised to pass sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights abuses against Muslim minorities, while the Senate was considering sanctions to punish China for its crackdown on Hong Kong.
Schumer’s bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind. A House version is co-sponsored by two members of the House Armed Services Committee: Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Mike Gallagher, R-Wis.
"[A]t a time of historically low interest rates, we should work to pair federal investments in research and development with public- and private-partner investments in scientific and technical moonshots,” the four lawmakers said in an USA Today op-ed this month.
“We must also remain mindful that, as our nation recovers, China gains ground. Beijing‘s authoritarian leaders aim to capitalize on this moment with an eye toward outpacing the United States by investing in technological innovations essential to Americans’ future safety and prosperity.”
According to a bill summary, the proposed technology directorate would fund research in the following technology focus areas:
- Artificial intelligence and machine learning.
- High-performance computing, semiconductors and advanced computer hardware.
- Quantum computing and information systems.
- Robotics, automation and advanced manufacturing.
- Natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention.
- Advanced communications technology.
- Biotechnology, genomics and synthetic biology.
- Advanced energy technology.
- Cybersecurity, data storage and data-management technologies.
- Materials science, engineering and exploration relevant to the other focus areas.
Under the bill, an additional $10 billion would be authorized to designate at least 10 regional technology hubs, which in turn would become “global centers for the research, development, and manufacturing of key technologies.”
When Schumer first floated the idea in November, as a tech “moon shot” against China, he said it had support from people close to President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., but lacked “their full-throated support.”
According to a senior aide on Wednesday, the sponsors were working to include legislation in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate is set to mark up its version of the bill in early June.
Last year, Schumer and Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican with hawkish views on China and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, were able to include the Fentanyl Sanctions Act in the NDAA. The bill is intended to hold foreign countries, like China, responsible for the spread of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
That time, the bill was introduced in April 2019 and included in the Senate version of the NDAA, which passed a month later. It remained in the fiscal 2020 NDAA that Congress passed in mid-December 2019.
Handicapping the bill is complicated. On the one hand, the bill’s price tag may turn off progressive Democrats already leery of the NDAA at $700 billion as well as fiscally conservative Republicans, said one congressional aide. On the other hand, massive COVID-19 aid packages may be a sign Congress is open to spending more liberally.
“The numbers we’re talking about these days are in the range of a trillion or three trillion, so what’s an extra $100 billion,” the aide said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.