STEM & Innovation

The latest news and legislative activity affecting science, education, R&D and high-tech innovation for startups and entrepreneurs

July 29, 2020
Legislative Updates

Scientific Innovation

On July 15, the House Appropriations Committee approved $71 billion, much of which would be allocated to scientific agencies to invest in the future scientific workforce and research. The annual Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill would provide $1 billion, $35 million more than approved for fiscal year 2020, for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which tests new technologies. Furthermore, the National Science Foundation (NSF) would receive $9 billion in funding, which is $270 million more than the previous fiscal year. The funds would be used for research on advanced manufacturing and artificial intelligence.

NSF Leadership

New NSF Director, Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan began his tenure on June 23, following a seven-month Senate confirmation process. He replaced adviser Kelvin Droegemeier, who led the agency on an acting basis after France Córdova completed her six-year term as director in March. In July, Panch outlined his vision for NSF and said it revolves around three “pillars”: engaging more Americans in science across the socioeconomic and geographic spectrum, maintaining global leadership in science, and “advancing research into the future.” Previously, his work focused on human-technology interactions, developing haptic user interfaces for individuals with disabilities and co-founding two companies that developed physical rehabilitation technologies. Over time, he also took on administrative responsibilities, becoming Arizona State’s chief research officer in 2010 and serving on NSF's governing board from 2014 through spring 2020.

STEM Education

As the pandemic continues to make remote schooling difficult, the House Appropriations Committee responded to the constraints by making several allocations to enhance STEM education. A portion of the $9 billion for the NSF would be dedicated to STEM education. The Committee also allocated funds to improve high-speed internet in rural areas to make remote learning easier on students. Furthermore, House Appropriations Committee approved $85 million in STEM grants for the Department of Education, which is a $20 million increase from fiscal year 2020.

May 26, 2020
Legislative Updates
Science-Led Decision-Making

The HEROES Act that passed the House on May 15 would require agencies to adopt a policy that prevents employees from misconduct, interference with releasing scientific findings and barriers to cooperating with scientists who operate outside of the federal agency. The bill would also require scientific conclusions to be nonpartisan. While this bill is not up for consideration in the Senate, several members of Congress are pushing for this language is likely to be included in the next version of the coronavirus legislation.

Department of Education

The HEROES Act would allocate $90 billion for the K-12 and higher education, $58 billion of which would go directly to local school districts. The bill would also authorize $13 billion for serving special education students during the pandemic and $2 billion to reimburse schools for purchasing laptops, tablets, hotspots and other devices for students and teachers. Similar support for education funding exists in the senate, but at lower levels so a compromised version of the next coronavirus package will likely include lower funding levels.

Department of Energy

The DOE’s “National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory” (NVBL) is a virtual lab designed to be a single point of contact for national laboratories to gain access to COVID-19 experts and research tools. The goal of this lab is to improve coordinated efforts to combat COVID-19. Due to the lab, researchers will be able to virtually access sequencing and bio-characterization facilities, high-performance computing assets and other valuable resources, as well as computing, diagnostics, and epidemiology teams.

The DOE’s Office of Science has created the position of principal deputy director, and the post will be filled by Steven Binkley, formerly the Deputy Director for Science Programs. The principal deputy director will supervise a set of new offices that will focus on diversity and inclusion, crosscutting research, accelerator technology development, research security and other policy priorities as well as performance management, budgeting and acting as advisor to the Office of Science Director.

National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation is funding a new research project that will measure the negative impact on kids’ reading levels as a result of school closures caused by COVID-19. It will involve 100 educators and measure reading levels in in 2,000 K-2 students and compare them with pre-pandemic levels. The studied students will utilize a digital learning tool to play reading games for 20 minutes per day, 5 days a week for 12 weeks.

March 25, 2020
Legislative Updates

Funding for STEM education continues in the current fiscal year with Congress rejecting President Trump’s request to terminate three major grant programs at the end of last year with level funding expected in FY21 appropriations process. These programs are key for states and school districts to use to support a variety of STEM and non-STEM education activities.

Department of Education:
Congress provided a 3% budget increase for the $1.2 billion Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants program, a 4% increase for the $2.1 billion Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program, and a 2% increase for the $1.2 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. These grant programs support for STEM-focused schools, STEM teacher professional development, and out-of-school STEM enrichment activities. Congress also provided $190 million for Education Innovation and Research Program within the Department of Education, of which $65 million supports STEM and computer science education activities. The department is working to implement congressional direction to use funds to expand opportunities for underrepresented students, such as minorities, girls, and youth from families living at or below the poverty line to help reduce the enrollment and achievement gap and target geographic diversity.

National Science Foundation:
The NSF FY20 appropriation increased the Education and Human Resources Account by 3% to $940 million to fund research capacity-building efforts at minority-serving institutions, STEM education pedagogy research, and various fellowship programs. In addition to STEM, NSF will spend $868 million on AI research, which is almost twice what it spent in FY19. Part of the increase would go toward establishing additional AI research institutes. NSF anticipates creating up to six AI institutes this fiscal year funded at up to $20 million each over five years. Some of these institutes will focus on applications of AI to research. Quantum Information Science (QIS) also stands out as a top priority as the administration continues to implement the National Quantum Initiative Act. NSF proposes to roughly double its funding to $226 million, in part to support new quantum research centers that it is establishing through its Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes program.

The Office of STEM Engagement at NASA received a 9% increase in funding to total $120 million that reaches across accounts that fund the Space Grant program, the Minority University Research Education Program, and EPSCoR, a program that works to build research capacity in states that receive a relatively low share of federal research funding.

Department of Energy:
The primary STEM education account, Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists, rose 24% to $28 million. Also, many of the DOE’s applied energy research and development programs received large increases with Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) receiving another year of record-level funding totaling a 16% increase of $425 million and the budget for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy increased by 20%.


Department of Defense:
The National Defense Education Program increased 6% to $144 million. The program aims to develop STEM talent through scholarships and fellowships as well as by supporting STEM engagement opportunities at schools where children of military families are enrolled. Across the Army, Navy, and Air Force, funding for University Research Initiatives (URC) increased 11% to $435 million. These accounts fund the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives (MURI) program, the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP), the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowships, and DOD’s awardees in the multi-agency Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers program. The budget for the Army’s University and Industry Research Centers account increased 11% to $127 million.

In addition to the enacted funding for employers to provide paid leave and the Small Business Administration declaring disaster states to enable low-interest loans, more tax cuts and incentives are expected in the next coronavirus legislation. The Small Business Administration (SBA) has accepted COVID-19 disaster applications for Ohio, Virginia and Massachusetts (along with about half the states at this point) to enable small businesses/nonprofits/entrepreneurs to seek up to $2 million in low-interest disaster relief loans. President Donald Trump has also invoked the Defense Production Act to fire up the manufacture of critical equipment in the fight against the coronavirus to address the shortage in masks, ventilators and related equipment needed to respond to COVID-19.

Economic Development Administration:
The Economic Development Administration (EDA) is launching a redesign of their Regional Innovation Strategies (RIS) program. With a 40% budget increase and recent reauthorization the new program will be called Build to Scale (B2S) and embrace a streamlined application process. Congress appropriated $33 million for the program in FY20. To date, this program has run six national competitions, soliciting more than 1,300 proposals from across the country and awarded $100 million in grants that have been matched by more than $115 million in community funding for 224 projects.  

The redesign will:

• Modernize the branding and language to better reflect the spirit of the entrepreneurship-communities the program serves
• Increase exposure and applications, including those from underserved communities
• Create a more customer friendly Notice of Funding Opportunity that will lead to better stakeholder engagement.    

New OMB Chief:
Vought Tapped as Permanent OMB Chief: Trump nominated deputy budget director Russell Vought to head the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, a position Vought has held in an acting capacity for more than a year. The vacancy was created after Trump announced on March 6 that acting Chief of Staff and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney would become U.S. special envoy for Northern Ireland, while Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) would become his new chief of staff. Mulvaney as OMB chief joined the White House as acting chief of staff, yet retained his OMB title. In practice, however, Vought handled the day-to-day operations of OMB.