Growth-Promoting, Anti-Aging Chemical Compound at the Root of Plant Growth and Animal Embryos

Plant roots and animal embryos rely on the same chemical for successful development.

What do frog eggs have in common with anti-aging creams? Their success depends on a group of chemical compounds called retinoids, which are capable of generating and re-generating tissues.

A new study in plants shows that retinoids’ tissue-generating capacities are also responsible for the appropriate development of roots.

If you’ve ever planted a radish seed, you know that the first thing it does is develop a long vertical root. Give it a bit more time, and it will get smaller roots that run perpendicular to the plant’s stem. Over time, these lateral roots will branch repeatedly and spread out, forming a web that stabilizes and feeds the plant.

These lateral roots don’t just spring out randomly. They appear and then branch out at regular intervals along a main axis, following a rhythm. What regulates and determines their development and rhythm was not known, until now.

In a new study, appearing August 26 in the journal Science, a research team led by Alexandra Dickinson, assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, and Philip Benfey, the Paul Kramer Distinguished Professor of Biology at Duke University, identifies the compound that plays a key role in triggering the development of plants’ lateral roots.

The research team had a good suspect: retinal, a type of retinoid, looked like it would fit the bill.

In humans, as well as all vertebrate animals, turning a fertilized egg into an embryo with a little beating heart requires that stem cells differentiate, specialize, and generate specific tissues, such as bones, blood vessels and a nervous system. This process is kickstarted and regulated by retinal. Animals can’t produce their own retinal, though, they must ingest it from plants, or from animals that eat plants.

“We know plants have the ability to produce this compound, that it’s very important for animal development, and so it was very tempting to check its role in plant development as well,” said Dickinson, who led this study as part of her postdoctoral research at Duke.

In order for plants to put retinal to good use, retinal molecules must form a tag-team with a protein inside the plant cell, in a process called protein binding.

To test if retinal was indeed behind lateral root development, Dickinson and her team treated seedlings with a dye that glows when retinal is bound by a protein inside a cell. As the seedling grew, glowing dots appeared near the tip of the main root. Soon after, a lateral root would grow from those glowing spots.

The process repeated at regular intervals as the seedling developed, showing that the growth of a lateral root was preceded by a peak in retinal binding.

To confirm their findings, the team applied retinal directly to the plants’ primary root. Seedlings that got a retinal booster developed more lateral roots than normal.

To be extra sure, the team applied a compound that made plants incapable of producing retinal, and saw that these seedlings made very few lateral roots.

They then applied retinal directly to these seedlings’ primary root, and sure enough, lateral roots started developing where retinal had been applied.

“All the ways in which we looked at this question came back very positive,” Benfey said.

“If an embryo is starved of retinal during its development, it will have developmental defects,” Benfey said. “It’s surprisingly analogous to what happens with plants and their lateral roots.”

And the similarities don’t stop there: the cells of an animal embryo rely on special proteins to grab retinal from their surroundings. Plants produce their own retinoids, but they still need special proteins to bind them and activate developmental processes.

The research team found that the protein plants use to bind retinal is a doppelganger of the one found in animal cells. They are different, but have a similar structure and shape.

“It is pretty exciting to have found both the signal that triggers root development and the protein that binds it,” Benfey said.

Plants and vertebrate animals are very different organisms, whose evolutionary paths went their separate ways over 1,500 million years ago. Finding that both use closely related chemical compounds to generate new tissues during their development is an example of nature independently reaching similar solutions to similar problems in two very different organisms, a phenomenon called “convergent evolution.”

Retinoids have multiple medical uses, from acne cream to cancer therapy. Discovering the exact ways in which they regulate the development of plant root tissues opens a whole new set of doors.

“We’ve found a new pathway that gives information to cells and convinces them to build a new organ instead of doing the job that they were initially assigned,” Dickinson said. “So maybe we can take something from plants and use it to better understand what’s happening in humans.”

Reference: “A plant lipocalin promotes retinal-mediated oscillatory lateral root initiation” by Alexandra J. Dickinson, Jingyuan ZhangMichael Luciano, Guy Wachsman, Evan Sandoval, Martin Schnermann, José R. Dinneny and Philip N. Benfey, 26 August 2021, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.abf7461

This work was supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the US National Institutes of Health (grant MIRA 1R35GM131725), by an Arnold and Mabel Beckman Postdoctoral Fellowship to Alexandra Dickinson. The research of José R. Dinneny was supported in part by a Faculty Scholar grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Simons Foundation. Michael Luciano and Martin Schnermann are supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Cancer Institute, and the Center for Cancer Research.,49351503.html


Biden departs for vacation as multiple crises escalate

President Joe Biden departed the White House for a vacation in Wilmington, Delaware as multiple crises escalated Thursday, most notably the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan that has forced the Pentagon to send troops to the country in a desperate attempt to help Americans there escape.

The Pentagon announced Thursday that the military is sending two Marine and one Army infantry battalion, roughly 3,000 troops, to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in an effort to provide security for embassy personnel and other Americans trying to evacuate the country. An additional 3,500 troops out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina will deploy to Kuwait as a stand-by force in case needed.

The deployments come as the security situation in Afghanistan has quickly deteriorated in recent weeks, with Taliban forces rapidly taking over much of the country as they close in on the capital city of Kabul. Some intelligence assessments of the situation on the ground are dire, with one assessment predicting the Taliban could take control of the capital within a month.


But the security situation isn’t the only crisis the U.S. faces as Biden heads to Delaware for his summer break, as it was also revealed Thursday that more than 212,000 people were encountered crossing the border in July. That number was a 13% increase over June and represented a two-decade high, dampening White House hopes that the summer heat would cause migrants to rethink the dangerous trek.

The situation at the border has only been worsened by the highly contagious delta variant, with reports of thousands of COVID-19 positive migrants packing detention facilities before they are released to their destinations throughout the country.

The delta variant has resulted in a renewed surge in COVID-19 cases across the country, particularly in southern states such Arkansas and Mississippi that have recorded new highs in hospitalizations.

Meanwhile, a key inflation measure surprised economists by hitting yet another record high, with producer price inflation rising 7.8% over the 12 month period ending in July. That number was the highest recorded in the over ten-year history of the metric, raising fears inflation could stick around longer than some predict.


The evolving crises have put pressure on Biden to rethink his vacation plans, delaying his departure and forcing him to spend some time at Camp David.


It’s one of the honorees from this year’s All About Photo Awards

This photo, from Cape Coast, Ghana, is titled “Carrying Her Future.” It’s one of the honorees from this year’s All About Photo Awards.

An old Pratika camera and a 7-year-old French girl who fell in love with photography is how the All About Photo Awards contest started. That little French girl, Sandrine Hermand-Grisel, is all grown up and, with the help of her “entrepreneurial soulmate” (husband Fabien), created the All About Photo website (a resource guide for anyone interested in photography) and the annual All About Photo Awards.

Hermand-Grisel, who comes from an artistic family that spent weekends exploring art museums, says the website and the contest are part of a path she was meant to take from the first time she held that camera.

“We are surrounded by water and have nowhere to run to. People are dying of hunger, and the floods are to blame,” says Nyakeak Rambon, 70, as she walks outside Wanchot Primary School in South Sudan, which has seen catastrophic flooding. Rambon is sheltering in a classroom. She stepped out to stretch her legs — and pose for a photo — but quickly went inside so she wouldn’t lose her sleeping spot.

Peter Caton/All About Photo Awards

“As a girl, I took my camera everywhere,” says Hermand-Grisel, who is 47 and lives in San Diego. “I covered my bedroom walls with pictures of the masters of photography. My room became a photography museum unlike my friends who had posters of their favorite actors or music bands.”

This year’s contest theme, The Mind’s Eye — a reference to the essay of the same name by famed photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson — drew more than 6,000 entries from 700 photographers across 23 countries and five continents. Hermand-Grisel says she chose the theme to draw photo submissions “that last and engage our minds and our souls,” that you can “look at over and over again.”

Thousands of devotees attend the Haldi festival at Pattan Kodoli village in the Indian state of Maharashtra. They come to offer prayers to the deity of the shepherds, Shri Vittal Birdev, an incarnation of Lord Shiva, in the hope of good fortune.

Donell Gumiran/All About Photo Awards

Thousands of commuters and travelers board a train in Tongi, Bangladesh. There aren’t enough seats — or trains — for the thousands of travelers. So people look for any way to ride and get home, grabbing onto the outside of the train and even standing on the roof.

Azim Khan Ronnie/All About Photo Awards

So of the 6,000, who won the top prize? Tom Price, a London-based photographer for his photo “Porter” — a picture Hermand-Grisel calls “stunning” and “technically perfect in its composition and color palette.” But at first she found it bewildering.

First prize went to this image of a porter in Kolkata. Photographer Tom Price took the image, then created a different backdrop: an empty, unidentified landscape emphasizing the loneliness of the migrant worker.

Tom Price/All About Photo Awards

“Price’s image puzzled me because of its subject, color and surreal feel. An Indian worker, carrying disproportionate pink containers on his head, stands in a no man’s land that looks like an American landscape. What was he doing there?”

Then she read the caption explaining that Price used an outside company to recreate a barren landscape around the migrant worker, worlds away from the crowds he would normally be lost in (although Price would not say where the landscape part of the piece is located, emphasizing that the point is to see the subject alone). Price calls it a visual commentary on the migrant worker experience, meant to have a surreal feel, meant to be pondered over. It’s the kind of photo that will last in your mind, says Hermand-Grisel.

“As an immigrant myself, the sense of dislocation resonated with me and Price’s original and unconventional approach to the difficult subject of migrants made it all the more powerful,” says Hermand-Grisel. His “Porter” photo is part of a series he did while living in Kolkata from 2015-2016.

Price, who has lived in a number of countries when not in his native U.K., says his first stop when exploring a new place is the open market because it “offers insight into the cultural heart of a place.” And that’s where he took his winning photograph: the Barabazar market, specifically — one of the largest wholesale markets in Asia that is so crowded and immense, Price says it feels like being in a soccer match where all these bodies are pressing up against you and you have no choice but to move with the flow of people.”

What struck him right away were the men calmly carrying massive amounts of goods on their heads through throngs of people. These men are mostly migrants, says Price, from poorer states such as Biha, with no alternative but to work in places far from home to make ends meet. Initially Price asked them to pose in an empty alley to separate them from the crowds they navigate each day.

But he found that still didn’t get across the message that these workers were on a pilgrimage of sorts, far from home and headed to unfamiliar places. He worked with FeatherWax, a retouching and CGI company, to create the stark landscape backgrounds as a way to truly visualize that sense that these men were outsiders.

In this photo from Indonesia, taken on April 18, 2020, the body of someone suspected of dying from COVID-19 is wrapped in plastic to reduce the chance of viral spread — although current thinking is that the risk of contracting the coronavirus from a corpse is minimal.

Joshua Irwandi/All About Photo Awards

The second place winner has an all too real subject: death from COVID. But Joshua Irwandi’s image of a single corpse, alone in an Indonesian hospital which they wrapped in plastic believing it will prevent infection (although the Centers for Disease Control says there is minimal risk of catching COVID from a dead body). It’s a photo that makes you stop and think of the pandemic’s catastrophic effect on the world, says Hermand-Grisel.

“We saw devastating images on the news every single day,” she notes. “I lost a friend in April and my stepmother was under a ventilator in the ER while we were judging the second round. But whatever the personal experience each one of us may have, this wrapped corpse, alone in a hospital room in Indonesia, is simply devastating.”

Jorge, age 40, plays with his 8-year-old daughter Ángeles in their house near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Asked what it is like to live through a pandemic, Jorge answered, “I was born without legs and without arms. I know very well what despair is, I have been living my own pandemic and isolation ever since. This is nothing new to me.”

Constanza Portnoy/All About Photo Awards

What surprised Hermand-Grisel about this year’s entries was the optimism and idealism in many of the images. With everything going on over the past year — COVID, protests for racial justice and the U.S. and Australian wildfires, to name a few — she expected disturbing, violent or simply sad moments. And yes, she says, there were certainly such photos, like Irwandi’s somber portrait, that make you “think, ponder, grasp.”

The fishermen in Phu Yen, Vietnam, cast their nets every day. From above, the photographer observes, this net looks like a heart of the sea.

Phuoc Hoai Nguyen/All About Photo Awards

But, she says, there were also images that take us away from the heavy toll of 2020, like a father playing with his daughter in Argentina and a gracefully cast fishing net in Vietnam.

The rocket’s upper stage deployed its payload, the SXM-8 satellite, into a geostationary transfer orbit 32 minutes after liftoff. Maxar announced several hours later that controllers has made contact with the spacecraft, which has deployed its solar arrays and started firing thrusters to move into geostationary orbit.

SXM-8, which weighed nearly 7,000 kilograms at launch, is effectively identical to SXM-7, which launched in December 2020 on another Falcon 9. While that launch was successful, Maxar and SiriusXM disclosed in January that the spacecraft suffered “failures of certain SXM-7 payload units.” The companies didn’t disclosed details about the failures.

SiriusXM, in its quarterly financial results published April 28, took a $220 million charge to its net income because of what it now called the failure of the satellite. “The evaluation of SXM-7 concluded that the satellite will not function as intended, which we considered to be a triggering event,” the company stated in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). “SXM-7 was determined to be a total loss.”

While the company took a $220 million, it noted that it has insurance on the satellite valued at $225 million. SiriusXM said it planned to file a claim on SXM-7 in the second quarter. “At this time, we are unable to reliably estimate the timing and amount of insurance recoveries,” it stated in the SEC filing.

Maxar, in a May 3 quarterly report filed with the SEC, took a change of $28 million associated with the loss of SXM-7. “After exhausting efforts to fully recover the satellite and further discussions with Sirius XM, in April 2021, we made the determination to record the cumulative adjustment to revenue,” the company stated. That charge included $25 million in final milestone payments for the satellite it will not receive and $3 million to cover costs associated with efforts to recover the satellite.

SiriusXM played down the effect of the loss of SXM-7, which, along with SXM-8, were intended to replace the XM-3 and XM-4 satellites that have been in orbit since the mid-2000s. SiriusXM said in its SEC filings than it believes that XM-3 and XM-4 can continue to operate for several more years, and it has in orbit XM-5, a spare satellite launched in 2010.

Sean Sullivan, chief financial officer of SiriusXM, said in an April 28 earnings call that the company has released a request for proposals for a replacement satellite. He did not disclose the schedule for acquiring or launching that replacement satellite.–166189822/–166189838/–166190265/–166190339/–166190357/–166189822/–166189838/–166190265/–166190339/–166190357/–166189822/–166189838/–166190265/–166190339/–166190357/


The problem for the GOP

At a rally at the Westin Jekyll Island on Friday night, Vernon Jones, a former Democrat-turned-Trump-supporting Republican who is Kemp’s most prominent opponent so far, called Kemp a “RINO,” and Jones’ supporters were among the most vocal booing Kemp the following day. Debbie Dooley, a founder of the Tea Party movement in Atlanta who is supporting Jones, called him “the Donald Trump of Georgia,” and a vocal contingent of Jones supporters crowded around him in the convention halls.

But Jones’ own history as a Democrat, in addition to the rich opposition research file on him, is disconcerting to many Republicans in the state.

“If his opponent’s Vernon Jones, I think Brian Kemp’s going to be the nominee,” said Jay Williams, a Georgia-based Republican strategist. “He’s a former Democrat, man … Vernon Jones is the crazy uncle we’ve known for a long time.”

The problem for the GOP, said Donna Rowe, a party official from Cobb County in the Atlanta suburbs, is that “we eat our own in the primary.”

“We’re still going to win it, but it’s going to be a bloodbath,” she said.

Kemp is not yet “out of the woods” with the base, Allen said. That was evident in the cacophony of boos he received during his remarks at the convention, a gathering that typically draws a state’s most fervent activists. The convention, one of the most widely attended in state history, featured many first-time delegates who had joined the convention largely because they believe the lie that the election was stolen from Trump.

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Yet even among that far-right audience, Kemp has fared better than some other Georgia elected officials who refuted Trump’s baseless accusations of widespread voter fraud. One of them, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who along with Raffensperger did not attend the convention, recently announced he would not seek reelection. Another, Attorney General Chris Carr, was nearly drowned out by boos when addressing the crowd on Friday.

Raffensperger, however, has seen the worst of it — he not only repudiated Trump’s claims that the election was stolen, he was also closer in his office to the counting of ballots than Kemp.

One of Raffensperger’s primary opponents, David Belle Isle, the former mayor of Alpharetta who Raffensperger defeated in a 2018 runoff for the nomination, distributed literature at the convention depicting Raffensperger with devil’s horns on his head. Rep. Jody Hice, who defended Trump’s effort to overturn the election and is running with his endorsement, distributed boot-shaped pins that read, “Boot Brad.”

The state party on Saturday overwhelmingly passed a resolution to censure Raffensperger.

Bruce Thompson, a Georgia state senator who had called for additional reviews of the November election, said Raffensperger is “done.” But he said the calculation surrounding Kemp has changed.

Though “the base is still pissed off,” he said, Kemp “has managed this as well as he could, as far as the pandemic and getting us open, being a governor … Brian has done a good job since the election with the economy and signing SB 202. And he’s traveling the state.”

That’s a formula that isn’t lost on Republicans who have angered Trump in other states. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey, similarly reviled by Trump — and censured by Republicans in his state — cheered conservatives when he issued an executive order in April banning the use of some “vaccine passports.”

Just as with Ducey, Trump derided Kemp as a “RINO” at the height of their post-election feud, when the former president pledged to campaign against Kemp in 2022. As late as April, Trump was asserting that Kemp “caved to the radical left-wing woke mob.” He said he was “ashamed” he endorsed Kemp in 2018.

But the governor’s rebound may limit Trump’s options in the state. Former Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump ally, said in April that he would not run for governor, after Trump floated him as a potential contender.

“If Brian Kemp keeps doing what he’s doing, which is the election law stuff, getting through another session with Dems saying he’s a terrible person,” Williams said, “I think he’s probably one really big issue away from kind of ensuring his nomination.”

Ga. — Few Republicans have taken more abuse from Donald Trump than Brian Kemp, the Georgia governor whose resistance to overturning the November election results in his state enraged the former president.

As a result, much of the state’s pro-Trump base is in open revolt against Kemp. On Saturday, Republicans booed him at their state convention.

But what didn’t happen at the party gathering may ultimately matter more. Convention delegates did not censure Kemp, even as they formally rebuked another Trump enemy, Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state.

Kemp’s standing with the rank-and-file has, improbably, improved, according to interviews with more than 30 party officials, strategists and activists here. And in his partial rehabilitation — the product of a relentless focus on so-called election integrity issues and culture war staples to excite the base — Kemp may serve as a model for dozens of Republicans elsewhere who have incurred Trump’s public wrath and are seeking to regain their standing with Republicans at home.

Kemp’s fate looms especially large in Georgia, a swing state where Trump not only was defeated by Joe Biden but saw Republicans lose both U.S. Senate seats in the state’s runoff elections in January. Fearful that Trump’s frequent criticism of Kemp could lead to a damaging primary and depress Republican turnout in a close general election — potentially a rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams — several Georgia-based Republicans and Republicans with ties to the state have privately appealed to Trump to hold back, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversations.

Former President Donald Trump said the Republican Party will take back Congress and the White House “sooner than you think.”

He was speaking in a video for the National Republican Senatorial Committee that was shared online Friday.

“We’re going to take back the Senate, take back the House, we’re going to take back the White House, and sooner than you think. It’s going to be really something special,” Trump said in the video.

“The love, and the affection, and the respect that you’ve given all of us, it’s really important,” he added, thanking people for their support. “The Republican Party is stronger than its ever been, and its going to be a lot stronger than it is right now. We’re going to turn it around, we’re going to turn it around fast.”

“I think he wins [next year’s GOP primary] with 65, 70 percent of the vote,” Robert Lee, a Georgia-based Republican strategist, said in a crowded hall shortly after Kemp spoke on Saturday afternoon.

That assessment — widely shared here — is one that Republicans blistered by Trump elsewhere could learn from. Earlier this year, Kemp’s polling had fallen off, GOP activists in several counties reprimanded him, and it was unclear whether the governor, seeking his second term next year, could even survive a primary challenge.

On Saturday, Kemp was met by a cheering section to compete with the booing. Then, he lingered for several hours in the convention halls — shaking hands and posing for photographs.

Clint Day, a former state senator who just months ago was far more pessimistic about Kemp’s prospects, said, “I think he could be reelected.”

The proximate cause of Kemp’s improved standing is the controversial voting law Kemp championed, which, among other restrictions, makes it more difficult to cast absentee ballots. Signing it in March not only reaffirmed his conservative credentials on voting access but cast him as a central figure in the GOP’s war over the issue with Democrats and corporate America.

Joel Allen, a party official in suburban Atlanta’s 6th Congressional District, said “Kemp really did a service to himself with SB 202,” referring to the voting bill.

And while Republicans may have been disappointed in Kemp they gained a common foil in Major League Baseball, which announced that it would move its All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of the legislation. Condemnations by two Georgia-headquartered companies, Coca-Cola and Delta, gave Kemp another platform to push back against perceived excesses of corporations and the left.

Kemp has also directly inserted himself into the GOP’s broader culture wars. In fundraising appeals in recent weeks, he has seized on leading wedge issues, saying critical race theory “has NO PLACE in our Georgia classrooms,” while pillorying “cancel culture” and “’Defund the Police’ nonsense taking hold in liberal strongholds and with the Democrats in Washington, D.C.”

Meanwhile, the governor has significantly relaxed coronavirus restrictions in the state, while issuing an executive order late last month banning state agencies from requiring Covid-19 vaccine passports.

By April, Kemp’s approval rating among Georgia Republicans had climbed 15 percentage points from its post-election low, according to Morning Consult, settling at 74 percent. Internal campaign polling showed improvement from earlier this year, as well.

“I’m in a lot better standing than what the media wants to tell people I am,” Kemp said on Saturday, while otherwise declining to comment.–166180693/–166180985/–166181103/–166180693/–166180985/–166181103/ 


Schumer’s “Endless Frontier Act” Hits China Hard

This week, in four different Congressional hearings, members of Congress got their first chance to weigh in on the multiple proposed changes to the National Science Foundation. Two of these hearings were with Congressional appropriators and concerned President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2022 “skinny” budget request that was released last week. The other two hearings were with the science authorizing committees – the House Science, Space and Technology Committee convened Thursday to consider “Reimagining our Innovation Future,” including some discussion of their newly introduced National Science Foundation for the Future Act, and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee covered the yet to be reintroduced Endless Frontier Act from Senators Schumer (D-NY) and Young (R-IN). The good news is the initial reactions were mostly positive. However, there are concerns by some members about NSF’s ability to handle a large infusion of funds and whether it’s the right agency to secure the country’s competitiveness.

Before the Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee on Tuesday, and then its House counterpart on Wednesday, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan defended the Administration’s budget request, a 20 percent increase for the agency, and made the case that, “under the administration’s…budget request, NSF will supercharge investments and work collaboratively with our federal counterparts and other partners to rapidly catalyze results in areas of national importance.”

Many of the questions that Dr. Panchanathan responded to concerned whether NSF could handle such a large increase of its budget. He made the case that NSF is not able to currently fund all of the proposals that it deems to be of high merit. As Science Magazine pointed out:

He told Senate appropriators that NSF would use the money to make more grants and expand their size and duration. Specifically, he said, the average grant would grow from $200,000 to $300,000 and from 3 years to 4 or 5 years. The percentage of submitted proposals accepted by the agency would rise from about 20% to 30% or higher, allowing NSF to fund billions of dollars of ideas that under current funding constraints are deemed worthy of support but rejected.

“It’s only 50% of what we could fund,” Panchanathan told the counterpart House spending panel the next day. “And we don’t want to leave those ideas on the floor because they might be picked up by our competitors.”

In a separate effort before the Senate Commerce Committee, the proposals within the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), which has not yet been introduced but is highly-anticipated, were discussed. Because of lack of legislative text, the hearing didn’t delve into specifics of the proposal. However, as in the Appropriation hearings, Members of Congress voiced general support for NSF but raised concerns about whether NSF can handle these new funds and if it’s the right agency for this mission. Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, former director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the previous administration, and one of the witnesses called by the committee, made the point that “NSF funding is a national imperative” and that the Foundation has been underfunded for decades. All the witnesses voiced strong support that NSF is well positioned to use the proposed increases and to do more.

On the House side, the Science, Space and Technology Committee chaired by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) convened to discuss how to ensure continued U.S. leadership in science and technology, as well as how to harness the U.S. research enterprise and all of the nation’s talent to develop solutions to the nation’s most pressing challenges. A panel that included former CRA Board Member and current President of Carnegie Mellon University Farnam Jahanian, along with former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, current PCAST co-chair nominee Frances Arnold, and former Chairman of Lockheed Martin Norm Augustine, all made the case that the U.S. research ecosystem remains the envy of the world, but sustained Federal investments are necessary to ensure we don’t cede that leadership to countries – particularly China – who are ramping up their own investments considerably to compete. Members on the committee seemed to acknowledge that need and express support for efforts like the NSF for the Future Act and Ranking Member Frank Lucas’ (R-OK) Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act, which would also authorize NSF on a path to doubling its budget.

What happens now? This process will need to play out more before we have an any good answers. From the sound of it, Congressional appropriators are supportive of increasing NSF’s funding. How much of an increase — the 20 percent the President is proposing, or less — is an open question. And there remains some skepticism among some members about proposals to establish a technology development directorate within NSF, but also a fair amount of support. The devil is in the details, of course, which both the President’s skinny budget and the to-be-reintroduced EFA don’t yet provide. Once more details are released, the debate will continue, and we’ll have a better idea of which proposals have more support and how things will play out. This is a process that could take the better part of the year (or more), so please check back for more updates.

Over the last two months, competing visions of the future of the National Science Foundation have been making their way through the House and Senate. And much like the famous opening line of Tale of Two Cities, their paths could not be more dissimilar. On the House side, the National Science Foundation for the Future Act has made deliberative and bipartisan progress through the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Meanwhile, on the Senate side, the Endless Frontier Act has been introduced; pulled, reworked, and reintroduced; heavily amended during a marathon Senate Commerce Committee hearing; and is now before the full Senate undergoing another round of amendments. Very different paths.

Let’s start with the Senate and the Endless Frontier Act. This has been a moving target with major changes to the bill happening at every legislative step. Regular readers will recall that the bill was first introduced in mid-April; it was almost immediately pulled from a scheduled Senate Commerce Committee hearing because of a large number of amendments, which is a sign that the legislation would not progress as written. The legislation was reworked, incorporating as many amendments as possible, and was reintroduced at a marathon 6+ hour hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee. At that hearing, the bill was further changed.

The new Endless Frontier Act is quite different. The bill still establishes a new Directorate for Technology & Innovation (abbreviated TD for “Tech Directorate”) with the directorate’s program managers expected to operate like their counterparts at DARPA. As well, the ten Technology Focus Areas (which are largely unchanged from previous versions) are now required to be reviewed every year; it had been every three years. Additionally, the new language transfers several current efforts of NSF into the new directorate. Most make sense and aren’t problematic, such as the Convergence Accelerator and the I-Corps programs; however, it does transfer the National AI Research Institutes program out of CISE with potential ramifications for the CS research community.

The funding authorizations are also different from previous versions. NSF, minus the new TD, gets a plus up of 30 percent over five years — a rough average of 5.5 percent a year. The Foundation would grow from just under $9 billion in Fiscal Year 2022 to just over $11 billion in 2026. In a significant change from previous versions of the bill, the new tech directorate would receive just over $40 billion in authorizations over five years, starting out at $2.5B in FY22 and growing to $14.9B in FY26, well down from the $100 billion originally proposed. As in the previous versions, that funding would be targeted to R&D activities in the key focus areas, support for scholarships and fellowships, test beds, efforts to improve academic tech transfer, and capacity building at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority serving institutions (MSIs). Additionally, in perhaps the most contentious change, the Department of Energy would also receive a $16 billion funding authorization over five years to perform research in the Technology Focus Areas. Guidance to DOE on how to spend the authorization is limited to “R&D and address[ing] the energy-related supply chain activities within the key focus areas.” Much of these DOE funds come directly at the expense of the new directorate; in fact, Senator Young (R-IN), one of the co-sponsors of EFA, called this amendment a “poison pill” during the committee hearing.

Chart Comparing Funding Levels in Endless Frontier Act to NSF for the Future Act

There are other provisions of note in the new language. Perhaps the most significant is a new emphasis on the geographic diversity of which states receive NSF funds. Senator Wicker (R-MS), the Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee, championed this issue during previous hearings. The new language now requires NSF to use “at least 20 percent” of the funding provided to the TD to carry out the EPSCoR program, which helps states who historically receive less NSF funding to build up their research capacity. In addition, the legislation also requires that “at least 20 percent” of all NSF funding must be used to carry out EPSCoR. Senator Wicker called this a “quantum leap” in terms of providing geographic diversity; seeing as last year NSF used about 3 percent of its research funding for EPSCoR, the Senator’s description is close to the mark. Provisions echoing this are throughout the legislation language for almost everything that is authorized.

There are also new provisions concerning research security, putting potentially greater scrutiny on controls for the research funded at the new directorate. There are two sections that are potentially concerning for the research community (legislative text in full). One section (Sec. 2303) puts prohibitions and reporting requirements on principal investigators from taking part in foreign talent recruit programs, with complete bans on recruitment programs from China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. The second section (Sec. 2304) is about “Additional Requirements for Directorate Research Security;” while vaguely worded, it could potentially lay the groundwork for putting controls on the research performed in the new directorate. The language is not clear as to what those controls would be, but it leans heavily on NSF to figure out how to protect the research in the technology focus areas.

While not a clean process, EFA did pass the Senate Commerce Committee with a bipartisan vote of 24-4. It was then moved quickly to the Senate floor last week, combined into a package with other legislation, and renamed the “United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021.” The bill is now 1400+ pages and has several new sections corresponding to several pieces of other legislation considered by other Senate committees. A major addition to the package is the “Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America Fund,” which provides $52 billion in emergency appropriations for semiconductor R&D. These funds are to both help bolster and expand the semiconductor industry in the United States and to foster research on next generation chips. Much of this legislative package deals with responding to the rise of China as a peer-rival to the US, so there are many sections handling foreign policy matters. But there are also sections dealing with research security, such as subjecting foreign donations to US academic institutions to oversight by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS). In short, this is no longer an authorization bill; it is much bigger.

The legislation was expected to be finalized and voted on before the Memorial Day weekend, but that has since changed; it is now expected to be handled in June when the Senate reconvenes after their holiday recess.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, the response has been very different. After the Senate Commerce Committee passed EFA, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), the Ranking Member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee put out a statement saying much of the Senate bill lacks a clear vision for NSF and is weighed down by special interest provisions. Rep. Lucas’ view should be seen as a barometer of Republican support for NSF; they will advocate for increases but only to an extent, and those increases must be well justified.

To that end, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has been moving their own NSF bill. Regular readers will recall that Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Lucas, along with Subcommittee on Research and Technology Chairwoman Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Ranking Member Michael Waltz (R-FL), introduced the National Science Foundation for the Future Act in late March and have been holding several hearings about NSF since. On May 13th the Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a markup of the legislation. In contrast with the Senate, the legislation is unchanged since introduction, it received only a few non-controversial amendments during this hearing, and it was passed unanimously on a voice vote. The next step is for the full Science Committee to markup the legislation; that’s likely to happen in early June. Consideration on the House floor should happen soon after. The Science Committee is also beginning the process of reauthorizing the Department of Energy’s Office of Science; we’ll have more details on that in a future post.

CRA endorsed the NSF for the Future Act in early May.

What happens next? At some point, these two different views on NSF’s future have to be reconciled and a compromise worked out. The main draw for EFA has been its higher funding level for the agency but, because of all the amendments, it is now much closer to the levels in the NSF for the Future Act; that is actually good from a compromise perspective. But since the USICA covers so many topics, many of which the House has not begun to cover, will the House even consider a conference? Or would it attempt to break the matter up into smaller pieces? Would the Senate agree to go along with that approach? It’s not unusual for legislation to remain idle before there’s an agreement between the two chambers, but that idleness can last months. Should the Senate pass the EFA/USICA bill, the likelihood that something gets worked out is high. But the timeframe is TBD. We’ll keep tracking all the developments, so please check back for more information.