masthead_37.jpg
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bipartisan Bill Would Pour Billions Into Science And Technology To Compete With China

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Senate is scrambling to pass a major bill that would pour hundreds of billions of dollars into science and technology in a bid to outcompete China. And as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, the bill has rare bipartisan support.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: A joke making the rounds these days is that pretty much the only thing that Republicans and Democrats can agree on is China. There's been a tidal wave of China-related proposals in Congress, and the Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 is one of the biggest. Indiana Senator Todd Young is one of the key sponsors, as is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who's been leading the charge to get it passed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: It could be a moment in history that future generations look back on as a turning point for American leadership in the 20th century - 21st century.

RUWITCH: The 400-page act appropriates more than $50 billion for America's microchip industry. It allocates tens of billions more for energy and space research. It overhauls the National Science Foundation, and it also includes billions in funding to create new tech hubs around America. David Johnson is president and CEO of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership. He says that last provision could be a game changer for places like Indianapolis, where there's talent and energy but no scale for a tech boom.

DAVID JOHNSON: It's a no-brainer that that program would be great. There just hasn't been a great deal of governmental participation in the building of the tech sectors in the economy that we have here.

RUWITCH: Jimmy Goodrich with the Semiconductor Industry Association likes the bill, too. He says the U.S. today only produces 12% of the world's semiconductors, down from close to 40% in 1990, in part because of neglect.

JIMMY GOODRICH: Today, the reality is that semiconductors are a strategic industry. Other governments around the world recognize their strategic importance and have for a long time provided government incentives to locate a greater share of semiconductor manufacturing in their country.

RUWITCH: The White House supports the legislation, but there are worries. Gregory Kulacki is a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He applauds the proposed investments in research, but he says eagerness to rush the bill through opened it up to what he considers counterproductive elements.

GREGORY KULACKI: This is sort of a knee-jerk reaction that's going to damage our relationships with our allies. It's going to create domestic problems at home on the civil liberties front. And it's not going to affect Chinese behavior at all.

RUWITCH: The union joined 64 other organizations in a joint letter warning about the legislation. It says it's anti-China framing will feed racism, violence, xenophobia and white nationalism.

ANNA ASHTON: I do think that there are clear risks that we could go overboard.

RUWITCH: Anna Ashton with the US-China Business Council has been tracking proposals aimed at China and the perceived challenge that it poses America. The last Congress considered more than 500 of them. This Congress, which started in January, is on track to blow past that record.

ASHTON: Some of it is a genuine desire to respond to that in a way that will be effective and ensure U.S. competitiveness in the future and also U.S. national security. But I think it's also been incredibly politicized.

RUWITCH: All of this sends a message to China, according to Scott Kennedy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

SCOTT KENNEDY: I think in some ways it helps provide a backbone to the administration so that the Chinese know there's a unified front.

RUWITCH: But with U.S.-China relations at their worst in decades, it does one more thing, he says.

KENNEDY: It also creates an amazing amount of momentum to continue the tensions and to not look for off-ramps.

RUWITCH: And that may make it harder for Washington and Beijing to find common ground. John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.