The $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act sets aside a lot of money for, you guessed it, these high-demand semiconductor chips. But a good section of this fund is intended to advance scientific research in several fields.
It could mean big things for the National Science Foundation. Over five years, $81 billion could be directed to the organization, the largest funding increase the NSF has seen since its inception in 1950.
“It would essentially trigger a new era of [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] in America through research and technology, with STEM education and training, creating jobs and expanding the geography of innovation to accelerate scientific discovery for enormous impacts,” said the director of the foundation, Sethuraman Panchanathan.
Marketplace‘s Sabri Ben-Achour spoke with Panchanathan about what this significant increase in funding could mean for the future of scientific research and innovation at NSF. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Sabri Ben Achour: So $81 billion over five years. What will this mean at the National Science Foundation?
Sethuraman Panchanathan: First, the CHIPS and Science Act 2022 is landmark bipartisan legislation. I just want to emphasize that it’s not just about chips, it’s about unlocking investments in American science and technology that will boost our economy and our national security for decades to come. So when we talk about the $81 billion over five years, that would essentially spark a new era of STEM in America through research and technology, with STEM education and training, creating jobs and expanding the geography of innovation to accelerate scientific discovery for enormous impacts.
Ben Achour: There was some disagreement when negotiating this money about what kind of science it should fund. You know, there’s like the general basic stuff, science for science’s sake, that the NSF is known for, as opposed to focusing on science used in industry, used in technology, with a clear economic application. Ultimately, what kind of science will this money be used for?
Panchanathan: You know, that’s a very good question. When I talk about NSF, if you look at the past seven decades of NSF’s journey and what it has made possible for our nation, I often describe it as NSF DNA. Like a DNA that has two strands that are intertwined and highly synergistic. One of those trends that you talked about that the NSF is making possible and known about is curiosity-driven and discovery-driven explorations. At the same time, NSF has also made possible, through the other strand, translations or innovations inspired by use and solution-oriented. These, as I said earlier, are highly synergistic and symbiotic. In other words, explorations make fantastic innovations possible. But innovations, in turn, also make more exploration possible. There are many, many examples of this when you look at the journey of science and technology. So with this investment, NSF will unleash both curiosity-driven research and use-inspired, solution-driven research. But more importantly, it’s going to enable incredible talent across our nation’s vast geography, our nation’s vast socio-economic demographics, our nation’s rich diversity. Because we know that talent and ideas are becoming more democratic and are everywhere. And we want to make sure talent everywhere is energized, inspired, motivated and brought to life.
Ben Achour: There’s $20 billion set aside for something that was recently created at the NSF called the Technology, Innovation and Partnerships Directorate. What is that? What’s it gonna do?
Panchanathan: The technologies, innovation partnerships will quickly translate the fantastic research ideas and curiosity-driven innovations that NSF is making possible across our country through our investments. And working in partnership with industry, it is a cross-functional leadership that leverages new ideas emerging from all NSF departments – this was the first new leadership in our 31 years at NSF. – and at the same time will energize more new ideas and therefore the future of the future of industries could be vibrant and robust across our country. But the most important thing that TIP will do is not only make innovation possible across our country, but also that talent everywhere will be engaged, inspired, nurtured and animated. Whether it’s community colleges, tribal colleges, minority-serving institutions, as well as other research institutions, it’s going to make possible the ideas that emerge from all of those places, and then make possible the talent that will be formed all over the world. nation, which will ensure a vibrant future for our nation.
Ben Achour: Will this translate into more marketable products, business innovations actually reaching the market?
Panchanathan: It will allow, yes, absolutely, for more innovation to be translated into technologies that can then be the result of enriching new businesses or existing businesses, it will certainly make that possible. But it will also make possible solutions to some of the big challenges we are facing, such as climate change or the pandemic we have just emerged from. If you look at how quickly scientific and technological innovations have been useful in this time of COVID, you will see the potential for us to be much more resilient to pandemics, much more resilient to natural hazards. And to ensure that the great global challenges of the future are not tackled incrementally, but much more proactively, configuring ourselves to be ready for any eventuality, that we will be able to ensure that we solve these problems thanks to the fantastic ideas and talent that NSF will make possible across our country.
It’s not a done deal
Ben Achour: Sometimes with Congress there is a difference, shall we say, between passing a bill and sending out the checks when the time comes. Are you worried about whether that money will actually materialize?
Panchanathan: That’s a very good question. This bill authorizes the funding, it is the first step. It is clear that the authorization must be followed by credits. And we look forward to working with Congress and the administration to ensure authorization marks are met with appropriate appropriations, so that we can unleash talent and ideas at high speed and scale. And in this moment of global competition that we are not losing a beat and that we are at the forefront of competitiveness, and more importantly, what we are doing is ensuring societal and economic prosperity everywhere.
Ben Achour: Ultimately, it’s about global competition over innovation and economic prosperity. Do you think that pushes the United States forward in this competition?
Panchanathan: You know, I always say that competition is something that motivates us, encourages us to do better, faster and to be even more excellent than us. The competition is often about us, rather than the competitor. I look at it from a personal point of view. I’ve always viewed competition as something that makes me even better than I’ve ever been. So this moment as a nation, for me, gives us this opportunity to unleash the latent ideas and talents and the spirit of innovation that pervades our entire country. It gives us a chance to exercise that in top form, and therefore to train the talent, the national talent, unleashed at full power and on a large scale. And then welcoming global talent at full power and at scale, so that in a place like America, a democracy that is teeming with new ideas and innovation, and that spirit is now exercised at full scale and at full potential. That’s how I see this competition, as motivating and inspiring us to do just that.
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