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How Congress wrecked its own science bill, explained in 600 words

The Endless Frontier Act was meant to show the US can still compete with China. It did the opposite.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer looks down as he walks in the US Capitol on January 21, 2020.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Earlier this year, it looked like Congress would do the unthinkable: pass a truly big, bipartisan bill. The legislation, known as the Endless Frontier Act, would provide a huge funding boost to American science research — framed as a way to compete with China. In the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) led the charge, and it looked like the bill would pass with support from both parties.

But in the past few months, two things happened: As the legislation worked through the Senate process, it was watered down, reducing how much new funding would go to research. Then last week, a vote on the bill was delayed, as Republicans threatened to kill the legislation altogether.

To put it another way: A bill meant to show the US could own China instead proved how dysfunctional the American political system is.

The bill, renamed the US Innovation and Competition Act as it grew in scope, was originally meant to provide a $100 billion boost to research. That would go to burgeoning fields like artificial intelligence and quantum computing, ensuring the US stays ahead of China and other competitors.

The original bill wasn’t perfect. The $100 billion would go to a new technology directorate at the National Science Foundation — coming in at more than double NSF’s traditional funding. Some advocates worried that money would warp NSF’s culture, shifting focus from basic research to the applied sciences work of the new directorate.

Some also criticized the bill for not reforming how science funding works instead of merely increasing it.

Still, it was a promising start — a level of investment into science that advocates had wanted for years.

Then the Senate got its hands on the bill. Since the legislation seemed likely to be bipartisan, Schumer threw it into the traditional Senate process, letting it work through committees and get marked up by lawmakers.

The bill was dramatically changed in that process. A lot of loosely related pieces were added, like a bill to boost computer chip manufacturing in the US.

But most importantly, the $100 billion was effectively cut down: The Senate rolled NSF’s existing funding into the $100 billion, cutting the amount of actual new funding by about half, with a 30 percent boost for the agency. The new technology directorate was cut to $29 billion. And the remaining funds were shifted to Energy Department labs, pushed by senators with such labs in their states.

Meanwhile, only a small fraction of the new funding that is left over would go to research and development. The bulk would instead go to miscellaneous programs, such as scholarships and STEM education efforts.

All in all, the bill was cut down from a massive boost to research and development to only a small increase — still worth passing, some advocates say, but not the transformative legislation once promised.

“The big question is the opportunity cost,” Caleb Watney at the Progressive Policy Institute told me. “Congress likes to pass a big, flashy bill and cross it off the list and not think about the issue for another five years.”

To top it off, whether the bill passes at all is now an open question. Republicans have contested parts of the bill, particularly a provision to require a prevailing wage for chip manufacturers. Those disputes led the Senate to cancel a vote last week, promising to come back to it this month. But who knows if that’ll happen.

Remember the original intent of the bill: The Endless Frontier Act was meant to show the US could still get big things done — to stay ahead of the curve and beat China. Instead, Congress showed that the US maybe can’t do all that much anymore.