Bipartisan bill builds on momentum for greater federal R&D spending

A bipartisan Senate bill is building off a growing demand for the federal government to invest more heavily in emerging technology research.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) introduced the National Strategy to Ensure American Leadership (SEAL) Act on Monday. The bill directs the Commerce Department to partner with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to identify the ten most critical emerging science and technology challenges facing the U.S.

The bill also requires a final report to outline recommendations for legislative or administrative action to ensure U.S. leadership in those 10 areas.

The bill comes after President Joe Biden’s 2022 discretionary spending plan outlined significant increases in agency research budgets, as well as advanced manufacturing initiatives at the Commerce Department to ramp up production of semiconductors and advance 5G technology.

The National Security Commission on AI, in its final report last month, also urged the Biden administration to ramp up civilian and defense R&D spending to stay ahead of international competitors with advanced technology.

Van Hollen said the bill looks to make up for shortcomings in federal R&D and a lack of a clear national strategy for technologies like 5G that raise national security concerns for the federal government.

“We should never have been caught behind the game when it came to an important piece of 5G technology, and we’re of course China exploit that benefit and that advantage around the world with Huawei,” Van Hollen said Monday in a virtual press event with reporters.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo) said some of the emerging tech fields identified in the report would likely attract more attention from private R&D investors. However, he said the report may also identify subjects with a strong national security imperative, but are such long-term investments that industry would probably not put up the money at this point.

“Maybe that’s somewhere where the government has to step in, like we have on the defense with DARPA and say, we’re here as a partner, we’re here to help your private company who’s interested in doing this — do something that it might not be willing to do otherwise or see its way clear to do otherwise,” Blunt said.

Van Hollen, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said if the report concludes that more federal spending is needed to support some aspects of emerging tech, he would push to see that funding included in annual spending bills, and expects bipartisan support.

“We’re in a much better place to look at what the government can do in the short term to move things in the right direction than we would have been having this same discussion 12 or 15 months ago,” he said. Blunt is also a member of the appropriations committee.

The bill dovetails in part with the Endless Frontier Act introduced by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) last year. The bill would rebrand the National Science Foundation as the National Science and Technology Foundation, and would give the new agency $100 billion over five years to lead investments in AI, machine learning, and other emerging technology.

Van Hollen said he could see his bill playing a complementary role to the Endless Frontier Act.

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