The Endless Frontier Act in Eleven Links

The news in April 2021 was that the Endless Frontier Act had been re-introduced for consideration by the United States Senate. Originally introduced in 2020, the legislation has now found bipartisan support, being sponsored in the Senate by  Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Todd Young (R-IN) and in the House by Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI). 

Why It Matters

The economic impact of a global pandemic means that many countries want to be seen as being at the forefront of developing key technologies. Sponsors of this legislation are fearful of the threat of eroding leadership by the US in such critical fields as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and robotics. To counteract any such tendency, they want to authorize a significant increase in US investment in fundamental scientific research, education, and training. An op-ed in USA Today when the legislation was introduced in 2020 to the House of Representatives quoted a particular cautionary statistic as a rationale: “Federal R&D spending has fallen to a mere 0.6% of GDP. Whereas America once led the world in the share of our economy invested in R&D, we now rank 12th globally. If we fail to change course, China will invest more than the United States in just 10 years.”

Even in the earliest days of the pandemic in 2020, the legislation was being pitched as beneficial. An op-ed in Forbes cited five major reasons for why the legislation should receive attention and support. First, the legislation would centralize funding of innovative technological research as well as scientific R&D under the National Science Foundation (NSF), with the benefit of establishing “a locus of responsibility and a strategic planning process that carries the ability to fund.” The second benefit would be a more human-centered and holistic approach in such development. Upgrading educational requirements as well as business requirements would be a third benefit. Regional technology hubs in areas throughout the country are a fourth. And finally, all of this would fuel American enthusiasm for and engagement in scientific and technological progress, solidifying and expanding our commitment to future expansion in these disciplines.

The press release from Senator Young’s office noted that the legislation “further targets support to ensure new research investments translate into new American companies, manufacturing and high-tech jobs, and opportunities for regions across the country to become global centers of emerging technology industries.” A fact sheet (PDF) outlines some of the key provisions of the bill:

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation (NSTF) and task a new deputy director with executing the new funding of fundamental research related to specific recognized global technology challenges with geostrategic implications for the United States.

  • The authorization for the new directorate would be $100 billion over five years to reinvigorate American leadership in the discovery and application of key technologies that will define global competitiveness. 

  • An additional $10 billion would be authorized over five years for the US Department of Commerce, to designate at least 10 regional technology hubs and award funds for comprehensive investment initiatives that would position regions across the US to be global centers for the research, development, and manufacturing of key technologies. 

Who's For It? Who May Not Be?

Some of those covering the federal beat sounded upbeat, if not thoroughly convinced of the bill’s reception. On the other hand, Politico coverage identified some portions of the bill that might prove problematic, most particularly the $100 billion funding amount. Budget conservatives are already concerned about federal spending. Other issues creating concern include protection of agency turf (specifically between the Department of Energy and NSF) as well as supply chain friction. The Politico story notes that industry doesn’t want to be penalized for their reliance on Chinese suppliers.

Stakeholders from the business and academic research sectors have stepped forward to indicate their support. For example, IBM applauded the introduction of the Endless Frontier Act in Congress, noting that “The bill will foster new modes of collaboration on scientific research that will help maintain our technological leadership, accelerate discovery of new technology to unlock societal and economic benefits, and help us be prepared for the next crisis.”  

Farnam Jahanian, the president of Carnegie Mellon University, testified before Congress about the value such legislation could represent. His three takeaways were “increasing research funding, investing in domestic and international talent, [and] elevating the role of universities in expanding the footprint of innovation.” 

The full text of the legislation may be found here

The Take-Away For the Information Community

The workflows of product innovation and scholarly exploration are closely tied. With any surge in R&D funding, the information community will face its own set of challenges. The community must be prepared to ensure that its systems can support a broad range of content formats and that systems will interoperate seamlessly and smoothly in support of emerging workflows. Are your systems up to that challenge? NISO will be holding its annual Strategic Summit on the topic of Transforming Content Through Transformed Systems on June 16-17. Attending that event may help to clarify your response.