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Congress misses the mark on science and tech funding

illustration of three large microchips and one very small microchip on a background overlaid with money and scientific notes

Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

Lawmakers managed to agree on six spending bills to partially fund the government for the rest of the year, but they fell far short of CHIPS and Science Act goals and agency budget requests.

The big picture: Agencies in charge of key science and tech tasks will remain underfunded even as Congress eyes more ambitious plans for artificial intelligence and other emerging tech.

By the numbers: The agreement largely keeps non-defense spending level with last year's bill, and many agencies are nowhere near their authorizations or budget requests.

  • The National Science Foundation got $9.06 billion. The CHIPS and Science Act authorized $15.6 billion for FY24, calling for a doubling of the agency's budget over five years to $18.9 billion in FY27.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology got $1.46 billion. CHIPS authorized $1.65 billion.
  • Lawmakers also included $41 million for the regional tech and innovation hub program. But CHIPS authorized $10 billion for the program over five years, and the Economic Development Administration received $500 million for the launch last year.
  • The National Telecommunications and Information Administration received $57 million, but had requested $117.3 million.
  • The DOJ Antitrust Division asked for $325 million to support its major tech antitrust cases against Google and other platforms along with investigations into ticketing and other consolidated markets, and came up short, with $233 million.

What they're saying: "China's aggressive push into AI research and development, underscored by significant state and private sector investment — despite its recent economic downturns — contrasts sharply with the U.S.' recent budget cuts to critical tech research agencies," said Federation of American Scientists' Divyansh Kaushik.

  • "How is NIST supposed to do all that Congress has mandated it to do, while also implementing the president's recent AI executive order at a time when Congress has cut the agency's budget by nearly 12%?"
  • "Congress likes talking a big game on China but once again misses the opportunity to back it with appropriations."

Spotlighting NIST's appropriations, Joseph Hoefer, Monument Advocacy's AI policy lead, called the funding level a "huge setback" for the agency, which is beset by a massive construction and maintenance backlog.

  • "With earmarked reductions compounding an overall decline in funding, the reverberations will echo across NIST's operations."
  • "From the mounting backlog of construction and maintenance needs to the very pillars of emerging technological frontiers like AI safety, this financial constraint threatens to undermine NIST's vital role."
  • "The impacts transcend mere numbers, as billions in potential risks and foregone progress loom on the horizon."

Our thought bubble: The CHIPS and Science Act and the White House's AI executive order lay out ambitious tasks to boost U.S. competitiveness in emerging tech, particularly for NIST and NSF, and on very tight deadlines.

  • Something will have to give, especially if lawmakers want to follow the CHIPS model to pass a package of bills on AI.

What's next: Lawmakers have until Friday to pass this spending package, or there'll be a partial government shutdown that impacts key programs for emerging technologies and R&D.

  • The shutdown deadline for the next tranche of bills is March 22.
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