Last week, President Joe Biden unveiled a proposed 2022 budget for the U.S. government that would boost federal spending on R&D by 9%, or $13.5 billion, including what he calls “the biggest increase in non-defense [R&D] spending on record.” The plan puts an unprecedented emphasis on translating scientific discoveries into practical tools for fighting climate change and disease, bolstering the economy, and tackling other issues.
Although Congress is certain to reject or revise parts of the proposal, its support for even a portion of Biden’s ambitious vision might lead to numerous new funding entities and alter how the government invests in academic research.
The $6 trillion spending blueprint released on 28 May adds greater detail to a skeletal plan Biden presented in early April. It asks Congress to boost spending on a wide swath of nondefense science (see table, below), with increases of 20% or more for research programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other agencies. It also includes a 30% boost for clean energy R&D. At the same time, Biden wants an 11% cut in basic research spending by the military, which is a key funder of academic research in math, computer science, and engineering.
The overall R&D request of $171 billion would give applied research a greater increase than basic, curiosity-driven research. That preference suggests the Biden administration “is, to some extent, thinking about science as more of a problem-solving enterprise [than] a discovery enterprise,” says David Hart, an R&D policy specialist at George Mason University. Other wealthy countries have already moved in that direction, recognizing that “rebalancing” research funding to emphasize “more applied research is essential to solving national problems,” notes Rebecca Dell of the ClimateWorks Foundation, who leads a program that works with industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
That philosophy is especially visible in proposals for adding entities focused on applied research to several of the government’s biggest basic science funders. NSF, for example, would get a technology, innovation, and partnerships (TIP) directorate. Biden also wants to create three agencies modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a Pentagon office created during the Cold War to help the country keep up with the Soviet Union and known for its agility in funding risky but potentially high-payoff research.
NIH would add ARPA-Health, getting $6.5 billion, to be spent over 3 years, to fund “transformational innovation in health research.” Eight agencies would be involved in funding a $500 million ARPA-Climate, with $200 million coming from the Department of Energy and $95 million from USDA. The budget doesn’t clarify where ARPA-Climate would be housed or who would be in charge. Even the Department of Transportation would add an ARPA, “to accelerate technology that improves infrastructure performance,” although the budget doesn’t specify its funding level. (Ironically, Biden requested less than a 1% increase for DARPA, leaving it at $3.5 billion.)
Research advocates, including those representing academic institutions, welcomed Biden’s backing of research. “The proposed historic increases … will foster innovation and fuel long-term economic growth,” says M. Peter McPherson of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
But many have questions about how the new funding mechanisms would work. One sensitive issue is how to ensure that NSF’s new TIP directorate and the new ARPAs will be able to operate as intended, and won’t duplicate or potentially harm existing programs that enjoy broad political support.
In the case of ARPA-Health, some observers have questioned whether NIH, which has a reputation for being risk averse, is the right home for a new agency designed to think outside the box. ARPA-Health “will need to be audacious, nimble, and have unique authorities,” says Ellen Sigal, chair and founder of Friends of Cancer Research, who supports the idea but has concerns about how it will be implemented.
The budget notes that ARPA-Health “will have a distinctive culture and organizational structure” as well as an advisory board. And NIH Director Francis Collins confronted the issue a few days before the budget’s release, assuring panels in Congress that NIH can adopt “kind of a DARPA attitude.” As proof, he noted NIH had quickly disbursed billions of dollars to develop treatments and vaccines to battle COVID-19.
Still, some research advocates worry ARPA-Health might become simply a larger version of the Common Fund, an existing NIH pot of money that critics say has failed to fund enough innovative research. Many lawmakers and advocates also want to be sure ARPA-Health doesn’t end up draining money from NIH’s 27 existing institutes, and are lobbying Congress to enlarge the agency’s overall budget.
Similar tensions are in play at NSF. The proposed TIP directorate is the result of a yearlong discussion, largely catalyzed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY), on how to re-engineer NSF to help the United States compete with China and other rising global powers. NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan says the directorate will be “a cross-cutting platform” that will help NSF advance research in 10 key technologies, take discoveries to market, and train the next generation of scientists and engineers. It will work “in close collaboration with all of NSF’s [seven other] directorates and offices” to maximize its effectiveness and avoid duplication, according to NSF budget documents.
The budget envisions TIP starting life with $865 million, including $350 million that will come from absorbing existing NSF programs. Both the White House and the Senate, which is close to approving broader legislation designed to out-innovate China that also includes language creating the new directorate, envision explosive growth for TIP. Biden’s budget sets a target of $10.7 billion by 2026, whereas the Senate bill calls for $8.4 billion that year.
However, even some senators who support the TIP directorate and a larger NSF budget question whether NSF, with its tradition of supporting basic research, is the best agency to spur U.S. economic growth and bolster national security. Last week, for example, Senator Ben Sasse (R–NE) persuaded his colleagues to add language boosting DARPA’s spending to the bill creating TIP, arguing the military agency is a better driver of innovation. “The NSF is Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and DARPA is a real-life Mission Impossible,” Sasse asserted in explaining his amendment, which would double DARPA’s annual budget. “Both are in the science business, but only one of them [DARPA] scares the crap out of China.”
The proposed ARPA-Climate comes with its own complications. It would be an unusual “cross-agency agency,” Hart notes, and the involvement of eight different funding sources means multiple appropriations committees in Congress will have a say in setting its annual budget. And, he says, the White House could face “a big burden coordinating a broad range of agencies.”
Hiring staff to run the new entities also could present a challenge, observers say. “You’ll be asking people to design and build the planes while flying them,” says a Senate staffer who was not authorized to speak on the record. But she says it’s also a chance “to bring on a new generation of smart, young people dedicated to public service.”
Such problems are still a long way off, however. It will take months for Congress to vet Biden’s budget request and for the White House and lawmakers to agree on final numbers. If they don’t finish the job by 1 October, when the 2022 fiscal year begins, current spending levels would likely be extended for weeks or months.
With reporting by Jocelyn Kaiser.