Everyone loves chips, but what about science?

The Chips and Science Act approved by the House and Senate last week – and expected to be signed by President Biden next week – has generated a lot of headline news on the chips side of the legislation, including $52 billion of government funding to incentivize semiconductor makers to build new plants in the United States.

At the same time, the science side of the bill has received much less explanation. Here are a few pointers from the bill on its far-reaching impact for Federally-supported research into a host of cutting-edge tech areas.

A MeriTalk review of the legislation shows it is packed with goodies for U.S. scientific institutions, especially the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is slated to receive $81 billion over five years as part of $100 billion overall for research and development activities.

A portion of the $81 billion will go toward establishing an NSF technology innovation directorate, to focus initially on areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), high performance computing, and quantum information science.

The bill also directs the Department of Commerce to create 20 “regional technology and innovation hubs” aimed at stimulating technology development and “expanding U.S. innovation capacity.”

While the legislation contains some specifics, it is mostly vague on the details, with little specific direction on what the technology directorate and innovation hubs will actually do. “Subject to the availability of appropriated funds,” it says, the NSF directorate’s leader will achieve a broad array of research-related goals “by making awards through the Directorate.”

In fact, the review shows, the bill contains five times more lines (58) elaborating on the duties of the directorate’s assistant director than it does explaining the basic purpose of the directorate itself (11).

Here are some things we do know about the tech-related provisions of the Chips and Science Act, which gained congressional approval on July 28:

Key Tech Areas

Buried in the 1,054-page bill (page 572) is an “initial list of key technology focus areas” for the new NSF technology directorate. They are, in order:

(1) Artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomy, and related advances.

(2) High performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware and software.

(3) Quantum information science and technology.

(4) Robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing.

(5) Natural and anthropogenic disaster prevention or mitigation.

(6) Advanced communications technology and immersive technology.

(7) Biotechnology, medical technology, genomics, and synthetic biology.

(8) Data storage, data management, distributed ledger technologies, and cybersecurity, including biometrics.

(9) Advanced energy and industrial efficiency technologies, such as batteries and advanced nuclear technologies.

(10) Advanced materials science, including composites 2D materials, other next-generation materials, and related manufacturing technologies.

As other media have noted, immersive technology is associated with the metaverse – the futuristic, virtual reality concept that is now the focus of Meta, the renamed Facebook.

Regional Tech Hubs

The new regional technology hubs will be geographically distributed in areas not considered leading technology centers currently, and are expected to be funded with $10 billion from fiscal year (FY) 2023 through fiscal year (FY) 2027.

Grants or other funding awarded to the hubs are supposed to be used to support “workforce development activities,” “business and entrepreneur development activities,” or “technology development and maturation activities.”

The details include:

  • The legislation authorizes $38 million for fiscal years 2023 through 2025 for a pilot program for the NSF to collect information and report on the computational needs of NSF-funded projects.
  • An unspecified amount is slated for a study of AI research capacity at U.S. universities, “including what enables successful research in the field and the geographic diversity of successful research in the country.”
  • The bill requires the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to submit to Congress a four-year comprehensive national science and technology strategy, primarily focused on economic security.
  • Without offering details, the legislation says the government will support “research on the cyber workforce, including paths to entry and re-entry into the cyber workforce” and will establish a data initiative through the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics “to measure the cybersecurity workforce.”
  • The bill directs the Secretary of Commerce to establish a “prize competition” to stimulate technologies “to support the deployment of affordable and reliable broadband connectivity in rural communities.”

That last item is one of the bill’s few mentions of broadband connectivity, which has been a focus of massive federal investment for decades. Just this year, the Federal Communications Commission said it was ready to authorize more than $313 million for broadband deployments in 19 states, in the eighth round of funding for its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

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Jerry Markon