House members from both parties pressed the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that funds projects in science and technology, over its record on steering taxpayer-funded innovation to American companies instead of foreign competitors.
Rep. Frank Wolf, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agency’s funding, asked NSF Director Subra Suresh on Tuesday if there should be a mechanism to make sure commercial dollars from federally supported innovation does not buttress, say, Chinese manufacturing.
“America is going to go into decline,” Mr. Wolf said. “We are broke, we have tremendous debt, we have tremendous deficits, and all this manufacturing leaves.”
Mr. Suresh said his agency does not engage in licensing decisions because of various parameters in the law. Instead, it is up to universities that accept the funding and then develop intellectual property to figure out the most prudent way to license it.
He also said Congress should be wary of “unintended consequences” when officials place restrictions on scientific development.
But Pennsylvania Rep. Chaka Fattah, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said while scientists have a tendency to share their knowledge with colleagues around the world, Congress’ interests as stewards of taxpayers’ dollars are more parochial.
“It’s like the Steelers — they don’t put their playbook out so that other people can see it,” Mr. Fattah said, an allusion to Mr. Suresh’s new job as president of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, starting July 1.
Mr. Suresh assured members that his agency has fostered manufacturing on American soil. The main problem, he said, is the United States is not as good as some international rivals at planning ahead. Even though Europe is in the grip of a sprawling financial crisis, its countries are forging plans to fund scientific research through the coming decade.
And “China has a five-year plan,” he said.
The NSF had a $7 billion budget during fiscal year 2012, according to its website. But Mr. Suresh noted that Congress is still mulling a short-term spending plan for the 2013 fiscal year that started back in October.
“It’s not the lack of money, it’s the lack of certainty,” he said. “This is a major problem for us.”