Earlier this year, it looked like Congress was going to do the unthinkable: pass a really big, bipartisan bill. Known as the Endless Frontier Act, the legislation would give American science research a huge boost in funding – as a way to compete with China. In the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Todd Young (R-IN) led the indictments, and it looked like the bill would be passed with mutual support.
But two things have happened in the past few months: As the legislation went through the Senate process, it was watered down, reducing new funding for research. Then a vote on the bill was postponed last week as Republicans threatened to scrap the legislation altogether.
In other words, a bill to show that the US could own China instead proved how dysfunctional the American political system is.
The bill, which has increasingly been renamed the US Innovation and Competition Act, was originally intended to boost research by $ 100 billion. This would go into emerging areas like artificial intelligence and quantum computing to ensure the US is one step ahead of China and other competitors.
The original calculation was not perfect. The $ 100 billion would go to a new technology directorate for the National Science Foundation – more than double the NSF's traditional funding. Some proponents feared that money would distort the culture of the NSF and shift the focus from basic research to the applied science work of the new directorate.
Some also criticized the bill for not reforming the way science funding works, rather than just increasing it.
Still, it was a promising start – a level of investment in science advocates had wanted for years.
Then the Senate got hold of the bill. Since the legislation seemed likely to be bipartisan, Schumer threw it into the traditional Senate process, had it work through committees, and be honored by lawmakers.
The bill was fundamentally changed. Many loosely connected parts were added, such as a bill to promote computer chip manufacturing in the United States.
But most importantly, the $ 100 billion has been effectively cut: the Senate increased the NSF's existing funding to the $ 100 billion and reduced actual new funding by about half, with the agency topping up by 30 percent has been. The new technology directorate has been cut to $ 29 billion. And the remaining funds were moved to the Department of Energy labs, which were being promoted by Senators with such labs in their states.
Only a small fraction of the new funds that remain would go to research and development. The majority would instead go to various programs such as scholarships and STEM training.
All in all, the bill has been reduced from a massive push for research and development to just a small increase – still worth passing, say some proponents, but not the transformative legislation once promised.
“The big question is opportunity cost,” Caleb Watney of the Progressive Policy Institute told me. "Congress likes to pass a big, flashy bill and remove it from the list and not think about it for five years."
Whether the bill will even go through is still an open question. Republicans have challenged portions of the bill, particularly a provision requiring a prevailing wage for chipmakers. These disputes resulted in the Senate canceling a vote last week and promising to come back to it this month. But who knows if that will happen.
Recall the original intent of the bill: the Endless Frontier Act was supposed to show that the US can still achieve great things – to get one step ahead of the curve and beat China. Instead, Congress showed that the US may not be able to do so much.