Protocol | Policy

Rep. Khanna on Congress’s $100 billion bet to take on China

The Silicon Valley congressman is co-sponsoring the Endless Frontier Act, a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would transform the National Science Foundation.

Rep. Khanna on Congress’s $100 billion bet to take on China

Rep. Ro Khanna sponsored the House bill both times.

Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

Hopes were high for the Endless Frontier Act when it was first introduced in 2020. The bipartisan, bicameral bill promised to boost U.S. efforts to compete against China by sending $100 billion to the National Science Foundation, refocusing its efforts on emerging technology like semiconductors and AI and even changing its name to the National Science and Technology Foundation. But the bill stagnated last year as Congress battled over COVID-19 recovery and the upcoming election.

Now it's back, with a slew of bipartisan sponsors in both chambers, the support of the Democratic White House and a Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, eager to bring it to a vote. The bill would create a new Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation inside the NSF, backed by $100 billion in funding. It would also reserve another $10 billion for the Department of Commerce to distribute to regional tech hubs.

For Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna, who sponsored the House bill both times, the path to passing what he describes as the biggest investment in science and technology since the Apollo era has never looked clearer. "I think that should be a very encouraging sign to people questioning whether our democracy is capable of meeting big challenges," Khanna said.

Khanna spoke with Protocol about what $100 billion could do for U.S. competitiveness, how the money will benefit smaller tech hubs throughout the country and why tech policy and foreign policy are so interconnected.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

This must be a little bit of deja vu for you, since you sponsored this bill on the first go around and a lot of people were pretty hopeful back then that it would pass, given it had some bipartisan support. How does this time around feel different for you?

The support of the White House is a critical difference. We have Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, praising the introduction, the president's press secretary saying this is a priority for the White House. We also have Senate Majority Leader Schumer, who can bring it for a vote on the Senate side, and finally, we had a year to speak to the House Science Committee and have a great constructive dialogue and understand some of the concerns of the science community and all of that has improved.

How did the last year change the legislation, either in terms of what's actually in it or in terms of the sense of urgency with regard to passing it?

We took some of the concerns of the science community into account so that we no longer have the name change. We have more discretion for NSF to use the funding. We really wanted to take their concerns seriously. We've also seen more urgency in terms of our competitiveness with China. That's a big concern. You have everyone from [Rep.] Jamaal Bowman to [Sen.] Lindsey Graham supporting the bill.

Was that kind of support something you were getting last year?

We have much more broad support this year. [Sen.] Todd Young and [Rep.] Mike Gallagher have done an extraordinary job bringing Republicans on board. Sen. Schumer has been relentless. This has been, I would argue, one of his top priorities. We tried to get a lot of the progressives on board. It's something I'm really proud of, working with Young, Gallagher and Schumer. We're all going in the same direction and trying to get as much of Congress on board for something that needs to be done.

I have to say, when I read this bill, it reads like an economic, jobs, STEM education bill couched as a foreign policy bill. How much of the emphasis on China was necessary to get Republicans on board?

It is an economic document. It's a jobs bill. It's a technology bill. But our argument is foreign policy and economic policy are interlaced. That the future of the 21st century is not as dependent on who has more aircraft carriers — it's more dependent on who will lead on the industries of the future and technology. Building a resilient supply chain for semiconductors and building a lead in clean tech and AI is as critical as funding defense, and that argument has resonated.

Why $100 billion over five years? Do you have a comparison for what China spends on these categories over a five-year period?

China spends between $100 and $150 billion, from what we've been told, so that is what's driving the numbers. I have called for $900 billion in my 21st Century Jobs Act, which would get us to 1% of GDP for science and technology, which is what it used to be in the 1960s. This is a very strong start to reengaging in science and technology funding which has been dormant.

Why has it been dormant?

There has not been a significant focus on the productive capability of the United States for decades. We became too much of a consumer society. We focused too much on consumer products, and we didn't think about the basics that build wealth, and that is having a strong industrial base, having a strong technology base, having a strong technology infrastructure. We've been surprised in the swiftness in the rise of China, and that's woken us up from our slumber. America always does best when we're challenged and when we face competition. There was a little bit of complacency post-Cold War.

There were some reports last week that the bill was facing some pushback and lawmakers in the Senate wanted to pump the brakes on it. What were the sticking points?

The biggest one was between the theoretical and applied sciences. The argument I made was applied science helps theoretical science. We can't just have algorithms in the abstract.

The Republicans obviously wanted to make sure it was funding technology development, and I think they're pleased where we're at. Six Republican co-sponsors in the Senate is quite a big deal.

One criticism I've seen is that the bill is too prescriptive in the emerging technology areas that it would seek to fund and that we should be responsive to whatever emerging technology emerges, for lack of a better word.

I agree with that. That's why I think the bill has flexibility for the NSF Directorate. There are suggested areas. They're not definitive. If we had no focus, that is also not good. We know we're behind in these areas. We know we have a need for semiconductors and clean tech and AI, and it's amazing to have bipartisan consensus on that. Obviously if tomorrow, something else comes up, the NSF directorate has flexibility, but it's good for them to have priorities.

One thing I didn't see in the bill was much of a focus on global talent. Not just how we attract it, but if you're really in a race with China, then you might want to also take talent away from competitors like China by making our institutions more open and attractive to foreign students and researchers. Was that a consideration along the way?

It is a consideration. That's our competitive advantage. We're an immigrant nation. We attract the best and brightest from around the world. I support a startup visa and a green card for those with advanced degrees, but that's not directly tied to the bill. You can only do so much with the bill. The bill is only focused on the National Science Foundation, not immigration policy. We need a lot of other policies. But this is focused on the NSF.

Who from the tech industry was involved in the input process and making the case for what the industry actually needs and wants from the government?

There have been a lot of tech voices. Everyone from the president of MIT and the president of CalTech, who have been very involved in drafting it, to leaders in semiconductor companies that are being impacted, the synthetic biology community, the AI research community has been very engaged.

There's also $10 billion in here for the Department of Commerce to fund regional technology hubs, which is a drum you've been banging for a long time. How can that funding be spent most effectively?

That's a critical point of this — that we distribute technology innovation. You can now have these hubs in Ohio and Pennsylvania and West Virginia and the South. I'm very excited about that part of the bill. It has to be spent in collaboration with the local community. That community needs to have the research universities on board, local industry on board, schools on board, local leadership on board. You can't just spend the money without a coherent plan and a lot of stakeholders locally.

You've been so vocal about emerging technology hubs, despite being the Silicon Valley congressman. What are the metrics you're following to say whether or not they are successful?

The key to look at the success we've had in some of these communities like Jefferson, Iowa to see: Are jobs being created? Which they are. Are apprenticeships working? Is tech leading to employment? Are you getting new patents? They all have to have metrics of success based on jobs, based on patents, based on innovation.

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