What a big new U.S. law that reshapes science agencies could mean for researchers

More than 2 years in the making, a massive bill that Congress completed this week aims high: It envisions a 5-year, $280 billion investment to keep the United States ahead of China in a global competition for technological preeminence.

The CHIPS and Science Act, passed yesterday by the House of Representatives and on Wednesday by the Senate, will result in some of the biggest changes in U.S. innovation policy in more than a decade. But researchers should not expect a surge of new funding anytime soon.

The legislation calls for more than doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF)—now $8.8 billion—over 5 years. It would also grow the $7.5 billion Office of Science at the Department of Energy (DOE) by 45% and boost the $850-million-a-year research account at the National Institute of Standards and Technology by 50%.

But that money is “authorized,” not committed. That leaves it to congressional spending panels to decide each year whether to appropriate the additional dollars. The only concrete boost in spending is $52 billion over 5 years for the semiconductor industry, along with $24 billion in tax credits for high-tech manufacturers.

At the same time, the bill makes significant changes in how those agencies operate through directives that don’t require money—and that go into effect as soon as President Joe Biden signs the measure. For example, it gives NSF the legislative authority to create a technology directorate that would nurture innovations with commercial potential and social impact, adding to the agency’s traditional mission of supporting basic research. The new directorate will focus on both emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum information science, and societal challenges such as combating climate change and training a tech-savvy workforce.

Poorer, more rural states will benefit from a new requirement that both NSF and DOE increase the share of research spending going to institutions there to 20%. (NSF is now at roughly 13%, whereas DOE doesn’t track the figure.) The bill also directs the Department of Commerce to create a network of regional technology centers designed to accelerate economic growth in those states.

Other sections of the bill address growing concerns that China has been stealing or unfairly benefiting from U.S.-funded research. In general, these research security provisions tighten oversight of interactions between U.S. and foreign scientists, and with foreign governments.

For example, the legislation prohibits U.S.-based scientists with federal funding from participating in a foreign talent recruitment program sponsored by China and Russia and bans federal employees from participating in such programs from any country. It prevents NSF from making awards to any university that operates a Chinese-funded Confucius Institute—a once-popular way for universities to beef up Chinese language and cultural programs on campus, now mostly closed because of political controversy. It also requires U.S. institutions to tell NSF about any gifts of $50,000 or more from a foreign government. (A current governmentwide mandate sets the minimum at $250,000.)

In addition, institutions receiving federal research dollars must now provide research security training to faculty and staff. And NSF has been ordered to create an independent forum to discuss how to strengthen research security in academic settings.

Although organizations representing U.S. higher education hailed passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, they are disappointed that legislators rejected their pleas to include at least $10 billion in immediate funding to jump-start the grand vision it describes. (The only immediate boost for the research agencies is a 5-year, $200 million appropriation for NSF to boost workforce training programs in microelectronics, courtesy of the semiconductor funding package.) They fear the authorized funding could be an empty promise.

“We have been here before: In 2007, Congress authorized tens of billions of dollars of new investments in federal research only to fail to deliver on funding,” says Peter McPherson, president of the 248-member Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, referring to the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which authorized large increases in NSF and DOE funding that never materialized. “The CHIPS Act must be step one in a process that ultimately includes Congress delivering the funding that will accomplish the goals of the legislation.”

Higher education groups and others were relieved that legislators dropped several contentious research security provisions. For example, the final bill no longer includes a new White House research security office that critics saw as a threat to legitimate research collaborations, a duplication of efforts already underway across the government, and an invitation to target Asian American scientists.

At the same time, it also omitted immigration provisions in the House bill that many academic scientists believe are essential for maintaining a strong pool of high-tech talent. One would have made it easier for foreign-born scientists to stay in the country after earning a degree from a U.S. institution. Another would have created a new visa category for foreign scientists setting up companies based on their research.

The bill went through numerous iterations—and names—since Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) first floated the idea of a $100 billion technology directorate at NSF in a November 2019 speech. In May 2020, he joined with Senator Todd Young (R–IN) to introduce legislation, named the Endless Frontiers Act in homage to Science, the Endless Frontier: A Report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research , the 1945 report that led to NSF’s creation 5 years later.

In June 2021, a greatly expanded version, rebranded the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act to reflect its increased emphasis on beating China demanded by many Republicans, passed the Senate by a margin of 68 to 32. In February, the House approved its own version of the legislation on a straight party line vote, reviving the America COMPETES moniker.

It had become the CHIPS and Science Act by the time Schumer hailed the Senate’s final 64-to-33 vote on 27 July, a tally that included 17 Republicans. “This is a Sputnik moment, only instead of Russia it’s China, in which America realized that another rival power would get way ahead of us if we didn’t pull out all the stops,” Schumer said.

Although most academic leaders were thrilled by Schumer’s original vision to beef up NSF, some were unhappy with the prospect of a technology directorate focused on applied research that would be much larger than NSF’s core programs. They also worried about its proposed quasi-independent status within the agency.

The final legislation dramatically shrinks its size and simply makes it the seventh research directorate at NSF. Still, CHIPS calls for the directorate to have a budget of $4 billion by 2027, or roughly one-fifth of NSF’s projected $19 billion budget for that year. In addition, some academic leaders still worry NSF may favor the new directorate over existing programs if Congress doesn’t grow NSF’s overall budget in future years.

Yesterday, House Democrats withstood a last-ditch effort by House Republican leaders to kill the bill, gaining 24 Republican votes on the way to a winning margin of 243 to 187. “With this legislation, we are ushering in a bold and prosperous future for American science and innovation,” says Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), chair of the science committee and a key player in formulating the bill.

CHIPS also could be Johnson’s last major legislative achievement: This fall she is retiring after 30 years in Congress.