With suggestions like the development of a new National Science Foundation directorate and an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health still being debated in Congress, the next year might be a watershed moment for US science and technology policy. On top of what has already been provided through pandemic recovery funding and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, lawmakers are still pushing for special multiyear funding measures that could send billions of dollars to science agencies like the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Commerce.
Nonetheless, there is significant disagreement over the alternatives on the table, and the time for bold action may be closing as the November midterm elections near. Even developments that look imminent might vanish beyond the horizon, and surprises should always be anticipated.
The jigsaw of innovation policy is continuously being put together
Congress passed various initiatives to boost technological innovation in 2021. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) joined up with Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) on legislation to create a National Science Foundation directorate and regional innovation centres that would potentially concentrate billions of dollars on crucial technological sectors, hoping for a speedy bipartisan triumph. The bill was bundled into the US Innovation and Competition Act and passed the Senate, but it was eventually stalled due to conflicting priorities and differences with House members over issues including the function of the NSF directorate and how to lessen regional concentration of R&D spending. It is currently in the hands of a conference committee for consideration. It’s accompanied by $52 billion in direct financing to kick off measures to assist U.S. semiconductor manufacture and R&D, as approved by the CHIPS for America Act a year ago. However, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has already set out $25 billion for energy technology research and demonstration, and the Department of Energy is putting together a substantial portfolio of big-scale projects. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is taking some steps on its own, including providing $1 billion from pandemic recovery money to help “regional industrial clusters” and looking at ways to strengthen essential sectors and supply networks for strategic technology.
The financing of science agencies is up in the air
Many government R&D programs might get significant funding increases if Congress completes its appropriations process for the current fiscal year, but Democrats have yet to gain enough Republican backing, who have objected to the magnitude of projected non-defense expenditure increases. Since the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, federal agencies have been running at close to their fiscal year 2021 budget levels, and if an agreement cannot be made, Congress may turn to a full-year stopgap measure, which would limit existing programs and prohibit new projects from starting. However, several new initiatives are already underway as a result of the infrastructure law’s infusion of funding, and the Build Back Better Act, if Senate Democrats succeed in reviving it, may offer a windfall for certain scientific agencies. The package that cleared the House gives around $10 billion to research and development projects, including about $900 million for fusion energy endeavors. The draft Senate bill contains $5 billion for national laboratory infrastructure, which is not included in the House version and might be used by DOE to fill budget gaps in certain projects while speeding up others. Both proposals provide $1.8 billion for the new National Science Foundation technology directorate.
The midterm elections are approaching
Democrats will feel a greater sense of pressure to complete outstanding legislative measures this year, given that their control of Congress might be jeopardized by the November election. If Republicans regain control of either side of Congress, the potential of funding Biden administration policies via special spending legislation would be eliminated, while certain bipartisan measures, such as semiconductor incentives, may have a longer shelf life. If the Senate changes hands, President Biden’s nominations are likely to be delayed much more than they are now, and even currently plausible candidates may be rejected. As a result, there will be a lot of pressure this year to fill agency roles. Additionally, departing legislators will have one last opportunity to make an impact. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Chair of the House Science Committee, has already stated that she intends to use her final year to promote “inclusive innovation,” highlighting pending legislation aimed at improving demographic analysis of the STEM workforce, building research capacity at minority-serving institutions and underserved geographic regions, and combating sexual harassment in academia.
Security policy is at a fork in the road, according to research
Last year, the Justice Department’s China Initiative hit snags, with one case going to trial and many others involving academics being withdrawn, but it did get several plea agreements and the conviction of Harvard University scientist Charles Lieber. Asian American advocacy organizations and notable scientists, among others, have criticized the project, claiming that it is racist, focuses on very minor wrongdoings, and instills widespread fear in the scientific community. Some of the fear stems from a lack of clarity about the kind of activities that scientists must disclose to funding organizations, as well as what those agencies may deem harmful. In order to provide clarification on the first topic, the White House recently released instructions to scientific agencies on disclosure obligations, as well as a deadline of three months for agencies to prepare “model grant application forms.” It also promises to offer recommendations on the more controversial issue of how agencies should utilize the information scientists provide to them by an indeterminate date. The instructions will not apply to federal prosecutors, but it is rumored that the Justice Department is planning to transfer more disclosure enforcement to scientific agencies.
The US and China compete for control of important technology
The US government is stepping its efforts to establish global emerging technology norms and standards, as well as pressuring corporations that create and sell them to do so in ways that benefit the nation. The Chinese government, which has tried to increase its own control over critical technology via efforts such as “China Standards 2035” and its previous “Made in China 2025” policy, is the primary, though often unstated, goal of these actions. The Biden administration has committed to form alliances with democratic nations that share similar principles in terms of technology creation and deployment. It is also banning exports to Chinese entities that it believes are backing authoritarian technology or the modernisation of China’s military. In accordance with a 2018 statute, the Commerce Department intends to strengthen regulations on new technologies as well as “foundational technology.” Furthermore, the administration and Congress are contemplating limiting the ability of US institutions to invest in China, a so-called “outbound” investment screening that would mimic the evaluations undertaken by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). CFIUS was dramatically extended by Congress in 2018 with the goal of preserving sensitive technology, and the procedure is now being debated in the higher education sector.
Mitigation strategies are based on climate science
The Biden administration is scheduled to present a National Climate Strategy that outlines activities required to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, after vows made last year at an international meeting in Glasgow. Furthermore, the US is pushing for improved international emissions-monitoring mechanisms to keep nations accountable, as well as increased public access to climate data and planning tools. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, have prepared a strategy for expanding federal “climate services,” an agency that has long pondered creating a specialized climate services branch. The government is also striving to strengthen climate science’s capacity to provide information tailored to specific geographic areas and economic sectors, notably with the publishing of the fifth National Climate Assessment in 2023. Furthermore, institutions throughout the government are continuing to employ high-level climate advisors, with NASA recently combining the roles of chief scientist and senior climate adviser and appointing climate-modeling specialist Kate Calvin to the job.
The White House scientific team is gaining traction
This year, the White House will try to move away from contemplation and toward action as it pushes forward with several of its major science and technology policy goals. In anticipation of redoubling efforts to promote scientific integrity and transparency in federal programs, as well as to bolster diversity, equity, and justice in the sciences and in the design and application of technology, the Office of Science and Technology Policy has engaged in an extensive stakeholder consultation process. The agency suggested new guidelines for ensuring research integrity across all federal agencies, including those without their own science portfolios, earlier this month. The Biden administration is also trying to develop its Justice40 project, which seeks to provide disadvantaged communities with 40% of the total benefits of government investment in areas like renewable energy and climate readiness. Meanwhile, the President’s Council of Advisors on Scientific and Technology will define out its policy function as it begins to take on projects, including those that address the high-level policy challenges that President Biden posed to his science advisor Eric Lander in a letter last year.
NASA has reached a turning point
Despite concerns about the Artemis exploration program’s long-term cost and schedule, it is expected to take a long-awaited step forward this year with the launch of its maiden uncrewed circumlunar voyage. Following its own delays, the agency’s commercial robotic lunar lander program is set to launch, joining a growing list of unmanned Moon missions from across the world. The ultimate objective of NASA’s lunar campaign is to create a new paradigm for spaceflight that combines science, exploration, and commercial development, which will be a major focus of the National Academies’ decadal survey for space-based research, which is now in the works. Meanwhile, the most recent decadal survey for planetary research is set to be released this year, reinvigorating the program’s goals after swiftly doubling in size. NASA’s astrophysics program will get out in 2022 on a high note, with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, ushering in a new era for space-based astronomy. With a fresh decadal survey in hand, the program will soon begin planning a series of medium-scale “probe” missions, as well as laying the basis for a future flagship telescope that will outperform Webb.
As the epidemic continues, scientists are looking for a “new normal.”
Due to the fast spread of the omicron coronavirus variety, many scientific organizations canceled plans to host in-person conferences early this year, showing how the pandemic continues to roil the academic community. Scientists are experimenting with novel ways of working, such as hybrid meetings and increased remote-access procedures for user facilities, but they’ve also highlighted the negative consequences of missing networking and training chances. As research institutions try to get back to normal, vaccination regulations have come under fire, with some contractor-run government laboratories facing legal challenges. While the economic recovery has averted expected fiscal crises at universities, particularly those with huge endowments, the higher education industry remains financially insecure. Universities are likewise dealing with a steady decline in undergraduate enrollments, and although overseas enrollments are improving after a severe dip, they have not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels.
The White House is gearing up for a biomedical innovation drive
Establishing an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, which would push forward high-risk, high-reward research, is a key part of President Biden’s innovation plan. The concept has gained steam in Congress, with appropriators from both the House and Senate suggesting money for the new company if Congress passes separate legislation authorizing its establishment. The House has introduced two rival bills to create ARPA–H, reflecting divisions about where it should be placed within the federal bureaucracy to develop the necessary culture, while the Senate has yet to propose its own measure. Biotechnology has also been brought up in discussions about the United States’ national competitiveness, prompting Congress to create a National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology to look into the matter further. In addition, White House scientific advisor Eric Lander has advocated a $65 billion biopreparedness project modeled after NASA’s “Apollo” mission to avert future pandemics. He has advocated for a downpayment on the project from Congress via the Build Back Better Act, but the most recent version falls well short of his spending goals.