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Senate passes bill to boost US science and tech innovation to compete with China

Sen. Charles Schumer, (D-N.Y) makes opening remarks during a hearing attended by a panel of Department of Homeland Security senior officials. Jan. 20, 2016. (CBP Photo by Glenn Fawcett)

An expansive bill aimed at reinvigorating America’s technological footprint to counter China passed the Senate on Tuesday and now heads to the House, where it faces a competing bill and somewhat murky future.

The legislation, called the Innovation and Competition Act, largely drew bipartisan support with the promise of bolstering America’s competitive edge by investing billions of dollars in scientific and technological innovations — including artificial intelligence, computer chips and robotics.

It passed 68-to-32 after some drama a few weeks ago of hours of behind-the-scenes negotiations, a flurry of last-minute amendments and an all-nighter of negotiations. Ultimately, Senate leaders canned it until the lawmakers returned from their Memorial Day recess after a compromise could not be reached.

President Joe Biden praised passage of the bill making generational investments in American workers. “This legislation addresses key elements that were included in my American Jobs Plan, and I am encouraged by this bipartisan effort to advance those elements separately through this bill,” Biden said in a statement. “It is long past time that we invest in American workers and American innovation.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the bill one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed in a long time, with a huge impact on the American economy and jobs.

“It’s the largest investment in scientific research and technological innovation in generations,” Schumer said. “It sets the United States on a path to lead the world in the industries of the future.”

In April, U.S. intelligence officials cast China, the world’s second-largest economy, as an “unparalleled” security threat, warning of Beijing’s increasing efforts to suppress its regional adversaries and expand its military might while racing to achieve technological superiority across the globe.

The Senate’s action highlights a rare bipartisan consensus in Congress that the U.S. needs a more coherent strategy to respond to China’s rise as a global power.

The bill would boost funding for research and technology manufacturing to increase America’s competitiveness, strengthen national security and grow the economy.

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., co-author of the legislation, singled out the bill’s passage as a mark of unity.

“I’m proud the Senate voted to advance this bill to outcompete China and invest in the U.S.,” Young said in a statement. “Let history record that, at this moment, we stood united.”

Schumer said Tuesday he has already spoken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and expects to reach a compromise between the chambers to send to President Joe Biden.

“I’m quite certain that we will get a really good product on the president’s desk,” Biden said.

What does the Senate bill do?

The legislation, spearheaded by Schumer and Young, would pump more than $200 billion into U.S. scientific and technological innovation over the next five years.

The bill, which originally began as the Endless Frontier Act, was expanded and renamed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act by Schumer in May. He joked Tuesday that the “frontier” name made it sound like “covered wagon” legislation.

The broadened bill establishes a new directorate for technology and innovation at the National Science Foundation to ensure $100 billion of funding is funneled to the development of artificial intelligences, semiconductors, robotics and high-performance computing.

Schumer said Washington has let U.S. competitiveness “lag” compared to China, particularly when it comes to technological innovation.

“We’ve become far too complacent, and the United States commits less than 1% of its GDP towards basic scientific research,” he said. “That’s the fault of government, but it’s also the fault of the private sector. The world is so competitive and global competition is so severe, companies feel they can’t invest as much in the kind of research that might pay off profits five or ten years down the road.”

The expanded legislation would provide $52 billion in assistance to semiconductor manufacturing companies to make computer chips, which have been in a global shortage since last summer, affecting manufacturers and automakers that use the chips in vehicles, cellphones and video game consoles.

Seventy-five percent of the world’s chips come from Asia, according to a September 2020 report from the Semiconductor Industry Association.

“We’ve seen what happens when our automakers and manufacturers depend on semiconductors made overseas alone. COVID-19 exposed the weaknesses in our supply chains, both our medical supply chains and our manufacturing supply chains,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who sits on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, during a recent news conference.

The legislation would also shell out $81 billion in congressional spending to the National Science Foundation budget between fiscal years 2022 and 2026, aiming to energize innovation by revamping ongoing programs and starting the new directorate.

In addition, it would establish tech hubs in places they have not traditionally existed.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., the lead sponsor of the Endless Frontiers Act in the House, told USA TODAY investing in tech education is one of the most important aspects of the bill, along with the “fundamental focus in applied science research.”

“Supporting that geographical spread of innovation” will be “transformative,” Khanna said.

Though the legislation has now passed the Senate, it will have to compete against a similar bill in the House, where the legislation heads next.

The House has introduced another, similar, piece of legislation: the NSF for the Future Act.

Both bills focus on expanding the NSF’s budget to boost American innovation. The NSF for the Future Act is a smaller-scale, narrower-focused bill that would double the NSF’s budget over five years. It also includes a new directorate for science and engineering solutions.

Some have expressed concern with the Senate bill’s heavy focus on China, while others want a piece of legislation that is more focused on applied science with a new tech directorate.

The same piece of legislation has to be passed in both chambers before it is signed by the president.

The chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, has hailed the NSF House legislation as a “solutions-driven approach.”

“I believe the competitive and security threat from China is real. I also believe the solutions-driven approach we take in the NSF for the Future Act offers the nation a win-win science and innovation strategy. History teaches us that problem-solving can itself drive the innovation that in turn spawns new industries and achieves competitive advantage,” Johnson also said during a previous hearing on the NSF legislation.

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