Nextgov: Democrats Again Propose New Tech-Focused Agency and Big Boosts in R&D Funding

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., reiterated calls to drastically up government funding levels for technology-driving research and development—and to form a new executive branch agency with a focus on innovation.

Legislation introduced by the Silicon Valley congressman on Friday includes proposals that would affect multiple federal agencies and stand up the Federal Institute of Technology. Deemed FIT for short, that institute would be a portion of lawmakers’ broader aims to make technology-centered investments, particularly in rural areas.

Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., Dwight Evans, D-Penn., and Nanette Diaz Barragán, D-Calif.,  co-sponsored the bill.

Establishing an entirely new independent agency would be “a heavy lift,” Khanna told Nextgov in an email Monday. Still, he views it as “what’s needed to truly focus our nation’s resources and attention on winning the 21st century and providing tech job opportunities to communities left behind.”

It’s not yet posted online, but a copy of the 36-page bill shared with Nextgov mirrors a legislative package Khanna put forward toward the end of the last congressional session.

The latest bill proposes increasing public funding for research and development in science and technology to 1% of the gross domestic product, noting that in 1964, America spent roughly 2% of the GDP on such R&D. “Public funding for research and development in science and technology financed a majority of the innovations that powered growth in the United States after World War II, including digital computing and modern pharmaceutical science,” according to the text.

President Joe Biden also recently committed to spending closer to that WWII-level amount.

Khanna confirmed that parts of the bill are similar to the Endless Frontier Act—“in that it pluses up R&D funding and creates tech hubs across the country in places left behind.” Specifically, the bill introduced last week would form the Federal Institute of Technology, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Up to 30 “local boards” would be set up under FIT in locations that don’t yet possess major technology centers. Funding would be distributed across federal, state and local agencies to promote research into “certain technology sectors,” including cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, blockchain, biotechnology, telecommunications, and more.

“Various agencies focus on these topics tangentially but this new agency would have the sole focus on promoting emerging technologies, innovation jobs and research funding,” Khanna explained.

He noted that this bill’s proposed public R&D funding level—$900 billion—is “much higher” than that proposed in the Endless Frontier Act. That legislation is one of a few at the heart of the chambers’ ongoing debate regarding future innovation and emerging technology investments.

“We hope this aspirational vision will help guide and influence negotiations on the Endless Frontier Act to show why we need a massive increase of public R&D funding levels,” Khanna said.

Among multiple other provisions in this recently proposed legislation are tax incentives for entities that hire from FIT programs, boosts to science, technology, engineering and math-improving educational programs and agency-led recommendations for how Congress can better support scientific development.

The bill was referred to the Education and Labor; Oversight and Reform; Ways and Means; Financial Services; Transportation and Infrastructure; Science, Space, and Technology; and Energy and Commerce Committees.