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U.S. Federal Research Funding Inches Up

U.S. Capitol (Louis Velazquez, Unsplash)

As the world emerges from the pandemic, we’re seeing greater recognition of the role of governments to invest in the research that will help us address future challenges. An article analyzing a U.S. federal research budget bill passed in December highlights $165 billion in total R&D funding for 2021—an increase of 1% over 2020. A reconciliation bill passed March 11 includes additional funding (excerpted from an article in Science):

  • $1.75 billion for efforts to sequence and track variants of the coronavirus;
  • $600 million for the National Science Foundation;
  • $150 million for the National Institute of Standards and Technology for its manufacturing research institutes;
  • $95 million for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, a portion of which will go to research.

COVID-19 has taught us that the world’s greatest challenges can be addressed with effective, cross-sector collaboration. Policymakers are responding with greater funding opportunities. As Leslee Gilbert, vice president, Van Scoyoc Associates told us in a Feb. 10 UIDP webinar on the prospects for federal science and technology funding, “The biggest challenge may be, how are you going to spend all the money?”

In “Running to Stand Still: Legislative Realities for the New Administration and 117th Congress,” Gilbert gave UIDP member representatives an inside-the-beltway snapshot of the legislative funding proposals most likely to take the policy stage first and those that are waiting in the wings (UIDP members can watch the webinar on demand in the Member Resource Center). And coming up, you can join us at UIDPVirtual 2021, where NSF Director Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan will illuminate his belief in the power of public-private partnerships and share his vision and answer your questions about the foundation’s priorities.

The Biden administration has already signaled that funding support for green energy solutions and for minority-serving institutions are priorities. Those themes will likely echo through discretionary funding packages across the board, but they will appear first in agency allocations and priority setting—long before new funding packages are passed.

In the U.S., at least, additional funding efforts will likely be difficult to pass in the near future because of a closely divided Congress, despite largely bipartisan support to increase funding for science and technology research. On the table are proposals to increase funding for the National Science Foundation by an order of magnitude and to pass a hefty infrastructure bill that is likely to include additional funding for AI, quantum technology, and cybersecurity—all elements of national security spending. There are also indications that government oversight will increase with these funding opportunities.

Gilbert cautioned that, although vastly increased funding is projected in the near term for science and technology research, the time is now to maximize its impact through careful planning. Universities have received hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID-19 research funding in the past year. They soon will be able to tap into millions more through another COVID-19 bill and an expected stimulus package. How will you plan to spend it wisely? What can you do now to ensure that research structures are built to be self-sustaining when new temporary streams run out?

Increased government investment in science and technology is a win, and it’s expected that many of these new dollars will go towards development of new technologies and research applications as well as basic science research. For UIDP members, there is tremendous opportunity. Like our webinar speaker, we encourage member organizations to tap into their government affairs offices and look for opportunities to inform policymakers. They need to hear about oversight that helps and oversight that hinders; about policies that might inhibit rather than encourage innovation; and how professionals on the ground can work with them to shape good R&D policy.