U.S. Congress Tees up Tech Directorate to Compete with China, But Will It Work?
President Biden has signed the “CHIPS and Science Act of 2022“—a massive bill intended to boost America’s innovation competitiveness. While most coverage has understandably focused on the “chips” half of the bill—$52 billion in appropriations to bolster the U.S. semiconductor industry—the “science” provisions could be even more transformative.
The bill seeks to direct more research funding towards underrepresented regions, protect research from IP theft, upgrade the National Labs, and much more, but the most important change might be the Tech Directorate. Congress aims to support U.S. innovation by building an applied research and commercialization division—a Tech Directorate—in the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Tech Directorate will fund applied research and commercialization activities in a bid to simultaneously diffuse the benefits of critical and emerging technologies into the U.S. economy and boost American technological competitiveness with China.
Duelling Visions on the Hill
The final iteration of the Tech Directorate reflects a compromise between the House and Senate tech competition bills that has been over a year in the making. Differences in approach between the House and Senate reflected different diagnoses of the problem. The Senate, worried that U.S. leadership in key technology areas “is under pressure from China and is eroding,” sought to strengthen U.S. competitiveness. The House, concerned that the NSF’s research was too theoretical, sought to increase the NSF’s contributions to societal challenges such as climate change and public health. Both chambers wanted to create a Tech Directorate that would bolster U.S. applied research and workforce development for key technologies, but due in part to different diagnoses of the problem, the House and Senate disagreed about legislative specificity and “authorization” levels for the Tech Directorate. Since the Tech Directorate is a substantial policy change, Congress would use this first bill to “authorize” spending, which would then still have to be appropriated in the next budget cycle.