Massive Bill Aims to Keep US Innovation Ahead of China's

Marcia Frellick

June 30, 2021

The budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF) could double, to $81 billion over the next 5 years, if a massive funding bill that passed with bipartisan support in the Senate this month also passes in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, has called the bill, which he co-sponsored with a price tag of nearly $250 billion, "the largest investment in scientific research and technological innovation in generations."

But rumbling through discussions are concerns about how the bill will affect the relationship between the United States and China.

Some senators worry that Chinese researchers who collaborate with Americans will steal or legally use findings to boost scientific discovery at home and gain a competitive advantage.

"I don't want the taxpayer funds to go in the front door and then to have the research go out the back door to China or other adversaries," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said recently during a Senate floor debate.

Conversely, American researchers are concerned that the tight restrictions and scrutiny mandated by the bill will keep Chinese researchers from wanting to work with Americans. Such limits, they argue, could hamper the search for solutions to global problems, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, air and water pollution, and climate change.

Passage of the bill ― the United States Innovation and Competition Act ― would be a huge boost to the NSF, which supports basic and applied research in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and the development of medical devices and diagnostic tools.

Scientific collaborations with other countries are essential, says Amanda Greenwell, head of the NSF Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, explaining that the foundation does not comment on pending legislation.

"U.S. research leadership frequently requires collaboration, from capturing the first image of a black hole to deciphering the effects of climate change," she says. "Those discoveries would have been impossible had U.S. researchers been unable to work with other great minds and powerful resources around the world."

But "all collaboration must be ethical, based on clear guiding principles that every nation must follow, and emerge from honest partnerships that respect research integrity, security, and the rule of law,” she says.

Since the NSF hired its first chief of research security strategy and policy in March 2020, the foundation "has recouped millions of taxpayer dollars through award suspensions, terminations, and debarments," Greenwell says.

"In fact, NSF has been helping lead the federal response to research security challenges, including commissioning the pivotal JASON report ― Fundamental Research Security ― that released its findings in 2019," she says. "The report and our subsequent actions are addressing broad threats to U.S. research integrity, not just threats from one nation."

Race for the Competitive Edge

Concern about competition with China has been building for decades.

On one measure ― doctoral degrees awarded in natural sciences and engineering (excluding social and behavioral sciences) ― China surpassed the U.S. in 2007 and has stayed at the top ever since, according to the National Science Board.

China has also doubled the number of "first university degrees" ― broadly equivalent to bachelor's degrees ― awarded in the sciences and engineering in the past 10 years, while the U.S. and European Union countries have seen only modest increases, according to the most recent estimates.

In 2016, nearly 800,000 such degrees were awarded in the U.S., while nearly 1 million were awarded in the 28 countries that made up the European Union at the time, and 1.7 million were awarded in China, according to the National Science Board.

The proposed legislation "is positioned as a kind of anti-China bill," says Denis Simon, PhD, executive director of the Center for Innovation Policy at the Duke University School of Law in Durham, NC.

Bill Has Anti-China Elements

"We've got to be very careful about pinning and shaping our research and development strategy and technology according to what we perceive to be the 'Chinese threat,’” says Simon, who once was executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in China.

"We need to get our house in order, no doubt," he says.

More spending on research and development and strategies to get better performance out of the R&D system in the U.S. are critical, he says.

"All these things need to occur not because the Chinese are breathing down our neck, but because we, as a global technological leader, need to do these things to stay in a leadership role," he says.

The bill has produced some anxiety among researchers in the U.S. and China, who fear either that "they will be accused of giving away the crown jewels or doing surreptitious data downloads," says Simon.

New rules for collaboration might need to come from outside government channels, Simon points out.

Collaborations between researchers who are part of American universities, think tanks, and research institutes and their Chinese counterparts have "far superseded what our governments are doing together, particularly over the last few years when the political relationship has soured,” he says.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune and Nurse.com and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.

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