WASHINGTON — Federal spending on scientific research and development could face steep reductions under the House Republican plan to cut government funding to fiscal 2022 levels in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling — a move that advocates say could jeopardize competitiveness vis-a-vis China.
Such a scenario also suggests a shift in Washington’s thinking about China. Instead of simultaneously trying to boost U.S. capabilities domestically and restraining China’s capabilities internationally, Congress would be opting to focus just on restraining Beijing.
“I think the emerging consensus in the Republican Party is going to be fighting it on one front, which is to restrain Chinese capabilities,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank. “That’s a lot cheaper.”
He said export controls and technology transfer restrictions will be used to accomplish that goal.
“I think that even if there’s a compromise where the Republicans get something and the Biden administration gets something, for the next five to 10 years I think we’re going to see real limits on science and R&D funding in general in the U.S.,” Atkinson said.
The expansion of basic scientific research enshrined in a 2022 bipartisan law, funded through the National Science Foundation, is “at pretty serious risk,” Atkinson said in an interview. Biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health and clean energy programs at the Energy Department also are at risk, he said.
After signing the legislation, which authorized $81 billion for the National Science Foundation over five years to advance research in several critical areas, President Joe Biden called it a “once-in-a-generation investment in America itself.”
Lawmakers from both parties called it a long overdue response to China’s growing strength in high-tech areas including artificial intelligence, quantum computing and biotech.
The legislation also separately appropriated $52 billion in federal grants to U.S. semiconductor manufacturers to rebuild domestic chip production that has moved abroad over the years.
House Republicans, faced with a vote to raise the national debt limit, are using it to put pressure on Biden and congressional Democrats to cut spending. The House passed a bill last month that would reduce the deficit by $4.8 trillion in exchange for lifting the debt limit until the first quarter of next year.
Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has said the U.S. could default on its debt as early as June 1 unless lawmakers lift the $31.4 trillion ceiling.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a member of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, said in an email that “it would be a huge mistake for Republicans to make cuts to” science and technology funding. Khanna’s proposal to boost funding for high-tech research became part of the legislation last year that expanded funding for the NSF.
“We included it in the [legislation] because it is fundamental to the U.S. leading on technology in the 21st century,” Khanna said.
Joanne Carney, the chief government relations officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said research and development budgets in nondefense areas could face cuts of as much as 28 percent in fiscal 2024.
The White House budget for fiscal 2024 sought about $107 billion for nondefense research and development, and that could be cut down to about $78 billion, Carney said in an interview, adding that it’s unclear how the cuts would be apportioned across federal agencies.
U.S. research and development spending took a beating in a similar past crisis, Carney said — when President Barack Obama signed legislation in 2011 to cut the federal deficit over 10 years in exchange for a debt limit increase.
Carney said that took a deep bite into research spending. “We estimated that over that period, $200 billion of research investments … could have been made,” she said.
A similar scenario in the current debt limit crisis would have the U.S. once again deferring research and development spending, she said. “And other countries will take advantage of that opportunity and increase their investments and research intensities in those same disciplines.”
Tom Romanoff, director of the technology project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said across-the-board cuts could hurt the push to modernize government computer systems. Agency technology spending falls into two broad categories — modernization, and operations and maintenance, Romanoff said in an email.
Unless Congress mandates modernization expenditure, agency managers are likely to use available funds to prioritize operations and keep systems functioning, Romanoff said.
Such deferred modernization could leave federal computer systems obsolete and vulnerable to cyberattacks, Romanoff said.