Endless Frontiers: Old-School Pork or New Cold War Tech Race?

The Endless Frontiers Act passed the Senate Tuesday in a bipartisan 68-32 vote. What was originally a $100 Billion bill to reform and enhance US research in ways lauded by innovation policy experts went through 616 amendments. The bill that emerged has fewer ambitious reforms, more local pork-barrel spending, and some totally unrelated additions like “shark fin sales elimination”. But it does still represent a major increase in US government spending on research and technology- and other than pork, the main theme of this spending is to protect US technological dominance from a rising China. One section of the bill is actually called “Limitation on cooperation with the People’s Republic of China“, and one successful amendment was “To prohibit any Federal funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology

The Chinese government got the message, calling the bill “full of Cold War thinking”. While this seems to have pushed the bill in some unproductive directions, like an excessive focus on specific industrial policies, I think that given the constraints of the world we live in this “Cold War thinking” might be the best we can hope for. The ideal alternative of increasing and reforming research funding without a boogeyman did not seem to be on the table.

The original Cold War drove incredible advances in science and technology- from atomic energy to the internet to game theory to the quintessential Space Race. If we can continue to avoid hot wars and dumb proxy wars, a new Cold War Tech Race that drives money and talent to research and technology could end up benefitting the US and the world. We might even get a Second Space Race out of it- some of the bill’s many space sections include “Advanced spacesuits“, “a national laboratory in space“, “Search for life“, and the sci-fi-sounding “Planetary Defense Coordination“. But most of the new Cold War Tech Race seems to focus on computing, from semiconductors to AI. As Senator Sasse said when advocating his successful amendment to double funding for the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA):

Modern war isn’t just about enemy landings; it is also about enemy hackings. And the Chinese Communist Party is currently pouring money into machine learning, AI, and quantum because they think if they achieve first- mover advantage in cyber, they will ultimately become the world’s preeminent superpower. DARPA’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen

The big remaining questions are whether the Endless Frontiers Act can make it through the House and the White House without getting even worse- and if some version of the bill makes it through, what new knowledge and technology will we end up getting from it?

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