Last week, the Chair and Ranking Member of the United States House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and its Research and Technology Subcommittee introduced the National Science Foundation for the Future Act. This bipartisan legislation from committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK), subcommittee Chair Haley Stevens (D-MI), and Ranking Member Michael Waltz (R-FL) would provide reauthorization for the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), providing a blueprint for the agency over the next five years.
Although this bill is just proposed legislation at this point and is one in a series of bills related to NSF and the scientific community, it includes a number of provisions that would advance support for public engagement with science. Advocacy by our community, members, and partners helped ensure that the importance of our work was heard by the drafters of the legislation.
Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions
The NSF for the Future Act would authorize the doubling of the NSF budget over the next five years, starting with an additional $2 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2022; it would also establish a new Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions, with a $1 billion budget in FY 2022 and growing to $5 billion in FY 2026. To allay concerns that the new investment would stifle the rest of NSF, the House bill only recommends this growth for the new directorate if NSF’s existing programs are also allowed to increase—and proposes to prevent the transfer of funds from existing programs to the new directorate.
In considering grants to translate research into science and engineering innovations, the bill explicitly asks the community to develop “innovative approaches to connect research with societal outcomes, education and training for students and researchers on engaging with end users and the public” and encourages the intentional engagement of local communities. NSF is also directed to “establish priorities and set up formal avenues for public input, as appropriate, to ensure that ethical, legal, and societal considerations are explicitly integrated into the priorities for the Directorate.”
In addition to accelerating the translation of fundamental research and to advance the development of technology, the new directorate would identify focus areas informed by several societal challenges identified in the legislation: climate change and environmental sustainability; global competitiveness in critical technologies; cybersecurity; national security; STEM education and workforce; and social and economic inequality.
Ethics and society
More generally, the legislation includes a sense of Congress that a number of emerging areas of research have potential ethical, social, safety, and security implications and that these should be incorporated into the research design and review process to “help mitigate potential harms before they happen.”
The bill also includes several other measures to enhance accessibility, accountability, and security of NSF-funded research. This includes a new requirement for researchers to prepare an ethics statement on possible security or other risks to society from their research in order to encourage scientists to always consider their research in a social context. In particular, statements are encouraged to consider not only potential risks to society and how they can be mitigated—but also “how partnerships and collaborations in the research can help mitigate potential harm and amplify potential societal benefits.”
The bill directs an assessment of how the Broader Impacts review criterion is applied across NSF and makes recommendations for improving the effectiveness of meeting the goals of achieving increased U.S. economic competitiveness, development of a globally competitive STEM workforce, and increased national security (as outlined in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010). It also calls on NSF to award competitive grants to support activities to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and availability of resources for implementing the Broader Impacts review criterion, such as training for program officers and merit review panelists, clearinghouses for sharing best practices, and tools for evaluating and documenting societal impacts of research.
The NSF for the Future Act Includes several efforts to advance broadening participation including the following: codifies the NSF INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) program; establishes a requirement that organizations seeking major facilities awards demonstrate experience and capabilities in employing best practices in broadening participation; establishes a pilot program requiring multi-institution proposals seeking more than $1 million in funding to submit in partnership with “emerging research institutions,” which it defines as a higher education institution that has received less than $35 million in Federal research funding, on average, for the previous three years; and supports organizational research on diversity in the technology sector.
The legislation encourages competitive grants to support research on improving our understanding of the climate system and related human and environmental systems, including grants for the following relevant to our field:
- “the development of effective strategies for public and community engagement in…all stages of the research and development process”
- “research to support the development and implementation of effective social strategies and tools for mitigating and adapting to climate change, including at the local level”
- “the development of effective strategies for educating and training future climate change researchers, and climate change response and mitigation professionals, in both research and development methods, as well as community engagement and science communication”
The legislation would support databases and tools to secure and improve biological research collections, including a requirement for the inclusion of a new specimen management plan in award proposals on how specimens collected or generated will be accessioned into and permanently maintained in an established biological collection. The act would also establish an Action Center to facilitate coordination and data sharing among communities of practice for research, education, workforce training, evaluation, and business model development—and a call for developing capacity for curation and collection management.
The bill calls for a decadal study, to be conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, on how to strengthen precollege science education including the identification of research priorities in PreK–12 STEM education and an additional study on barriers to the widespread implementation of STEM education innovations. It would also call for grants to “support research and development on widespread and sustained implementation of STEM education innovations” and to “establish a network of centers for science and technical education.”
The House legislation includes language about provide access to data, including support for the development of open data repositories and establishes criteria for trusted open repositories.
The NSF for the Future Act serves as a counterpoint to the Endless Frontier Act, which was introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) in the last Congress and is expected to be reintroduced in the near future. Last month, new Senate Majority Leader Schumer directed the relevant committees to start drafting legislative components that would have the Endless Frontier Act as its centerpiece. The version of Endless Frontier introduced last year would establish a new Directorate for Technology and establish a path to increase the foundation’s budget to $35 billion within four years.
In recent days, House Science Committee Ranking Member Lucas also introduced the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act (SALSTA) that would double funding for basic research over the next ten years at the Department of Energy, NSF, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Bipartisan groups of Senators and Representatives have also introduced the Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act in both the Senate and the House. The legislation—led by Sens. Edward Markey (D-MA), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Susan Collins (R-ME); and Reps. Diana DeGette (D-CO), Fred Upton (R-MI), Eddie Bernie Johnson (D-TX), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), and Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH)—would authorize nearly $25 billion in support to researchers who have been impacted by the pandemic.
The American Jobs Plan unveiled by the White House on March 31 also includes a substantial investment in the country’s research infrastructure, including a call to invest $50 billion in NSF and create a new technology directorate, dedicate $40 billion to upgrade laboratories, establish ARPA-C to advance climate science, modernize schools and child care facilities, and more.
- Jeffrey Mervis, “House panel offers its plan to double NSF budget and create technology directorate,” Science, March 26, 2021.
- Mitch Ambrose, “Science Committee Makes Counterproposal to Endless Frontier Act,” FYI: Science Policy News from AIP, March 26, 2021.