The 2021 version of the Endless Frontier Act (EFA) has been reintroduced in Congress, and this is a very good thing.
Most reports have described the bill as a research bill, which it is. The bill allocates around $100 billion to the National Science Foundation. Most of these new funds will be spent directly on basic research, at either national labs or universities.
So far, so good — the EFA is a research bill. But if you look more closely, it is clear that the EFA is much more than just a research bill.
First of all, the bill is targeted. Rather than spreading research dollars across all fields, the EFA focuses the new spending on just ten fields, all crucial to technology. This should make the bill more consequential than most research bills, especially for IEEE members. These focus areas are:
- High performance computing
- Semiconductors & advanced computer hardware
- Quantum computing and information systems
- Robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing
- Natural and anthropogenic disaster prevention and mitigation
- Advanced communication technology
- Biotechnology, medical technology, genomics, and synthetic biology
- Cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies
- Advanced energy, batteries, and industrial efficiency
- Advanced material science, engineering, & other exploration relevant to the fields listed above
More importantly, while research spending represents the bulk of spending in the EFA, it isn’t the bulk of the bill itself. Most of the EFA is focused on what happens after the research is done, and that makes the bill especially interesting.
IEEE members know that the gap between research and commercial applications for that research is vast. Known as the “Valley of Death,” plenty of promising ideas have disappeared into this gap, never to be heard from again simply because that transition is too difficult.
The EFA seeks to, if not eliminate, at least make the Valley smaller by creating new — and expanding existing — infrastructure to make moving basic research into the private sector more likely.
For example, the EFA calls for the creation of between 10 and 15 new Regional Technology Hubs. With their $9.425 billion budget (which is separate from the $100 billion in research funds), the hubs can help companies and/or universities conduct research necessary to commercialize products. The hubs can also help create regional economic development plans, invest in worker training programs, or attract private-sector investments to a given area.
That last part is important. While the EFA doesn’t say where these hubs will go, it does say that the hubs must be distributed widely across the country in areas that are not currently centers of innovation. So, while Boston and San Jose won’t get one, Rochester, Milwaukee, and Mobile could. The goal is to pull innovation out of our universities and the coasts and into the rest of the economy.
This represents a bold new approach to economic development. For the past 50 years, cutting-edge innovation — and especially innovation that has led to economic growth — has predominantly been developed in a relatively few parts of the country: Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, North Carolina, and a couple of other areas. These tech clusters are important for concentrating capitol and talent in a way that maximizes innovation. These clusters are responsible for the bulk of innovations that drove the global technology revolution that has improved the lives of billions of people and improved the well-being of all Americans. They also receive the lion’s share of the economic benefits that come from the technology revolution, which is fair since they also produced the technological revolution.
The EFA won’t end Silicon Valley, nor reduce its importance to the country. But by creating research and manufacturing hubs outside of these clusters, the EFA will extend the benefits of the innovative work being done in Silicon Valley to other parts of the country — especially parts that so far have been on the periphery of our innovative economy. America’s most innovative minds may be concentrated in a few cities, but there are innovative minds, companies, and universities all over our country. The EFA seeks to ensure that all of this talent is utilized to its full potential.
The EFA also recognizes that entrepreneurship and innovation depend on more than just PhDs. PhD experts are, of course, vital and the EFA invests heavily in their work. But other skilled, trained experts are also important. The EFA includes funds for worker training, scholarships, and other investments in students at all levels, from community colleges, apprenticeships and non-traditional training programs all the way up to post-docs. The EFA recognizes that all are important to America’s economy.
To put this another way, without the genius Elon Musk, there is no SpaceX — but without an army of well-trained experts who know how to build things behind Elon Musk, there also isn’t a SpaceX.
EFA recognizes that the United States needs to do a better job equipping all types of people to participate in an innovation-based economy.
The EFA has some high-powered supporters, starting with Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority leader from New York, and Rep. Ro Khanna who represents parts of Silicon Valley. Sen. Schumer and Rep. Khanna are the bill’s sponsors, but nearly two dozen other legislators have signed on as cosponsors so far. This support is bipartisan, with almost an equal number of Republican and Democratic legislators on board.
Senators: Young (IN), Hassasn (NH), Collins (ME), Coons (DE), Portman (OH), Baldwin (WI), Graham (SC), Peters (MI), Blunt (MO), Daines (MT), Van Hollen (MD), Romney (UT), Kelly (AZ)
Representatives: Gallagher (WI), Wild (PA), Turner (OH), Bowman (NY), Fitzpatrick (PA), and Sherrill (NJ)
IEEE-USA has endorsed the Endless Frontier Act, and is currently working with legislators to ensure that it passes. IEEE members who would like to help should contact their members of Congress and ask that they endorse either S. 1260 (Senate) or H.R. 2731 (House of Representative).
If you have questions about the EFA, please contact IEEE-USA’s Director of Government Relations, Russ Harrison, at firstname.lastname@example.org.