Endless Frontier Act would expand federal science, innovation competitiveness

April 29, 2021
By: Jason Rittenberg

Last week, a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators reintroduced the Endless Frontier Act, a bill that would authorize more than $112 billion over five years for new research and commercialization activities within the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Commerce. This proposal would establish multiple tools at each agency to support regional innovation economies. Sen. Schumer (D-NY), the driving force behind the legislation and the Senate majority leader, is looking to advance the bill through the Senate quickly, but is being slowed down despite bipartisan support.

Summary

The most substantial provision of the Endless Frontier Act would create a new “Directorate for Technology and Innovation” at NSF focused on development and commercialization. The legislation proposes $100 billion over five years for this directorate, which would make it roughly twice the size of the rest of the agency. NSF would be authorized to, among other things, support consortia-based technology centers, fund STEM education opportunities at all levels of higher education, and facilitate technology transfer. These activities would be focused on 10 broad technology areas, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology, cybersecurity, batteries and materials science.

For technology-based economic development organizations, the most notable section of the Endless Frontier Act is a $10 billion authorization to support regional innovation through two programs. Commerce would be authorized to identify 10-15 regional technology hubs, based on proposals from broad consortia, for substantial investments in R&D, workforce, entrepreneurship and commercialization. Commerce would also be authorized to use more than $500 million to fund strategy projects to develop plans and programs to strengthen their regions.

Other sections of the legislation focus on manufacturing assistance. The bill would provide more than $2 billion to expand the network of Manufacturing USA institutes, including by adding what could be dozens of new centers. Commerce would be authorized to establish a “Supply Chain Resiliency and Crises Response Program” to invest in strengthening the nation’s supply chain.

Outlook

There seems to be broad interest in Congress to pass legislation this year that will strengthen America’s global technological competitiveness. However, the exact form, timing and appropriations support for this activity is still being negotiated. The Endless Frontier Act was scheduled for a markup by the Senate commerce committee earlier this week but was pulled from the agenda after Senators proposed more than 200 amendments to the bill. There is an expectation that a markup will be rescheduled a few weeks from now.

Meanwhile, the House is moving forward with separate legislation to reauthorize the National Science Foundation and may not consider the Endless Frontier Act directly. Both of these proposals are structured currently as authorizations and will need emergency appropriations (such as through an infrastructure package) or regular discretionary appropriations to fund the proposals.

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