Experts see promise in China competition bills, but want to see the money too

Both chambers have passed bills to authorize billions of dollars in new spending on technology, but appropriators have to offer up the cash

Mirimus lab scientists preparing to test COVID-19 samples from recovered patients on April 8, 2020, in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Getty Images)
Mirimus lab scientists preparing to test COVID-19 samples from recovered patients on April 8, 2020, in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Getty Images)
Posted July 20, 2021 at 5:45am

This is the second part of a series on the growing competition between China and the United States over technology and research. Last week we looked at the stakes in the competition. This week we look at the specific bills in Congress to address science and technology spending.

Amid a hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington that threatens to impede progress on any number of issues — a fragile bipartisan infrastructure deal could soon become its latest victim — a common foe has managed to keep Republicans and Democrats on track: China.

This summer, both the Senate and House voted on a bipartisan basis to pass legislation designed to bring the United States up to speed with Beijing in scientific research and development, especially in advanced technological fields such as artificial intelligence.

In philosophy, policy and the federal dollar amount that would be authorized for spending, each chamber’s approach differs from its counterpart’s. As China advances, researchers in the U.S. cannot begin to catch up until lawmakers hammer out those differences and a unified bill is signed into law by President Joe Biden, who has urged Congress forward.

But the path forward remains murky, complicated by a packed legislative calendar. And even if the bills are signed into law, a major hurdle remains.

“Authorizations are not appropriations,” said Matt Hourihan, who directs the Research and Development Budget and Policy Program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“We’ve had other examples of Congress trying to ramp up funding for science agencies, and appropriations didn’t keep up with authorizations,” he said. “The thing about big dollar figures attached to authorizations is that they don’t always mean a whole lot and they are often illusory.”

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Experts say the three bills that have been introduced — two in the House, one in the Senate — would be a victory for basic science and technology researchers as well as national security hawks who believe China’s focus on applied science and advanced technology has given it a head start in the 21st century.

Funding increases are one reason why. The Senate bill, which was championed by Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and passed in early June by a 68-32 vote, would authorize more than $100 billion for science and technology programs across the federal government, including $81 billion over five years for the National Science Foundation.

One of the House bills would nearly match the Senate’s NSF funding authorization, and both would establish and authorize funding for a new directorate within the agency designed to spearhead research of critical technologies and solutions to climate change and other problems. Experts say the expanded funding for NSF could be game-changing.

“Federal funding for research and development, as a share of gross domestic product, is actually lower today than it was pre-Sputnik,” said Stephen Ezell, vice president of global innovation policy at the Information Technology Innovation Foundation. “Relative to our own historical norms, we are simply underinvesting.”

Ezell said the bills would go “an awfully long way” in bringing the U.S. up to speed with China, but money is only one aspect of why. Myriad policy changes in the bills, especially in the areas of science and technology education and government cooperation with academic institutions and the private sector, could vastly improve the R&D “ecosystem.”

“We need to create these mechanisms that will enable the research to be translated into technologies that are manufactured at scale, mostly in the United States, and can support employment here,” he said. “So not just throwing money at the problem.”

The Senate bill also includes contributions from committees that don’t typically deal with science and technology — including the Banking, Finance, and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees — that are aimed at countering China in other ways, such as by preventing espionage of U.S. research and scrutinizing more closely some foreign investments.

“We’d be remiss to lose out on some of those elements that have been incorporated on the Senate side,” said Ezell.

Those elements don’t appear in either of the House bills, although a similar effort approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week could find its way into the final package. Their absence is indicative of the divergent legislative approaches crafted by each chamber, which pitted the U.S. research community against China hawks in Congress.

“There was always a tension in the division of two kind of separate sides that were each envisioning something slightly different and were never quite reconciled,” said Caleb Watney, director of innovation policy at the Progressive Policy Institute.

“On the one hand, you have the science community, which just wants increased investment in basic science funding,” he said. “And then on the other, you have national security hawks very concerned about China’s increasing ambition and investment in emerging technologies.”

While Schumer spent much of the Senate debate positioning his legislation as a direct answer to China’s science and technology ambitions, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, took thinly veiled shots at the approach.

“We are at a time of markedly increased global competition in research and development,” Johnson said recently. “However, while we should be cognizant of our increasing global competition, we must not be constrained by it. To continue to lead, we must chart our own course.”

As it was introduced, Schumer’s bill would have authorized $100 billion for the NSF’s new directorate, which would be tasked with applied research in 10 areas of emerging technology. Concerns on the House side grew as supporters of basic research wondered why the new directorate would receive so much new funding without any for existing NSF programs.

Such concerns existed on the Senate side too. And as the bill worked its way through the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the authorized funding for the new directorate shrunk as money was set aside for existing NSF programs, the Energy Department, the Pentagon and NASA.

House leaders will need to sign off on those spending additions. But as a result of the Senate debate, funding for the NSF is more or less equal in the two bills, which could grease the wheels a bit when the bills go to conference.

“The point of all this is to actually get something passed into law,” said Hourihan. “The fact that these bills are much closer together should certainly make that easier.”

It’s possible that, after wrapping up the current infrastructure debate, Congress could turn its attention to China and send something to Biden for his signature in the fall.

But there are already signs that Hourihan’s concern about lawmakers spending less money than they’ve authorized themselves is prescient. While the House bill would authorize $12.5 billion for NSF in fiscal 2022, a draft funding bill released by the House Appropriations Committee earlier this month would provide only $9.6 billion in actual money.

“So right there you’ve already got a good indicator of the struggle that can follow when you pass aggressive authorizations,” said Hourihan. “And that tells you something about how difficult it can be, right?”