The chance that metaphoric celestial bodies would align to allow for the development of new federal science policy1 has actually become the legislative version of a race between an overloaded clown car and a sensible minivan.
The initial goal was to add a new directorate to the National Science Foundation (NSF) that would focus on cutting-edge science to help to keep the United States the international leader in science. The House of Representatives and the Senate bills began with the same goals but took different paths.
The Senate bill, which began life with grander goals and a larger sticker price than its House of Representatives competitor, became unrecognizable as soon as it hit the Senate floor. Senators submitted over 600 amendments for consideration during Senate floor debate. A small percentage of those amendments were debated and voted on but by the time it came to vote on the final bill, it was barely recognizable; even the name of the bill changed.
The Senate bill calls for the creation of a new National Science Foundation (NSF) Directorate for Technology and Innovation, with a $5.8 billion price tag for each of the first five years (the original bill allotted $20 billion per year). Also included is more funding for the NSF, increasing the budget from $8.5 billion in FY20 to $21.3 billion in FY26, with funding for basic and fundamental research increasing 40% by FY26.
Unlike its younger self, the final bill left the Senate floor with $39 billion to support the U.S. semiconductor industry. A number of new provisions were added to the bill to address real and perceived espionage threats to the American science community from China. Those states with limited research communities would see a huge increase in funding under the bill. This program, EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), would see an increase from 0.75% of the NSF budget to 20% of the NSF annual budget. The bill, crafted to expand the scope of the NSF, also ended up including a provision continuing the authority of NASA, including congressional permission to land on the moon and on Mars. Even though the final bill appeared to include something for everyone, 32 Senators still voted against it.
It is important to remember that this bill, along with the House bill, doesn’t include any actual funding. In congressional terms, it merely authorizes money to be spent but does not actually appropriate the money. Think of them as legislative wish lists.
Soon after the Senate’s legislative clown car left the garage, the House of Representatives fired up the family minivan, a commonsense bill that isn’t flashy but understands its purpose. Like the Senate bill, the House bill creates a new directorate aimed at taking big risks with new cutting-edge areas of science. Unlike the Senate bill, however, it slowly increases the NSF budget. After an initial increase of $2 billion, the House bill increases the NSF budget to $13.3 billion in FY26, a 6% increase per year. It also addresses security concerns by, in part, requiring NSF-funded researchers to submit a statement identifying potential risks associated with their proposal.
As a sign of the minivan-ness of the bill, it faced almost no opposition on its path through the House. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology approved the bill by voice vote and when it came to passage by the full House, it received only 67 no votes after the minority agreed to pass the bill without offering amendments.
The big question is what happens next. The two bills are very different in size and scope so it could be a big effort to find agreement. A simple solution would be for the House to pass the Senate-passed bill but that seems almost as unlikely as the Senate passing the House-passed bill.
1Wilson KM (2021). Are the policy planets in line again? ASCB Newsletter 44(3), 8–10. www.ascb.org/science-policy/are-the-policy-planets-in-line-again.
About the Author:
Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org