Senate Bill Supports NSF Overhaul And Tech Research Funding

11:54 minutes

On Tuesday, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which would commit billions of dollars towards technology research, aimed at keeping the United States competitive with China. The bipartisan bill passed the chamber 68-32, and commits roughly $250 billion in funding for scientific research, subsidies for chipmakers, funding for cutting-edge science like artificial intelligence, and an overhaul of the National Science Foundation.

Plus, President Biden pledges more vaccine help for low and middle income countries like India, which is still reeling from a deadly second wave of the virus. And a new report warns that climate change could have a major impact on military infrastructure and preparedness in the U.S. and around the world.

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American, joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss this week’s science stories.

And, Minnesota Public Radio reporter Kirsti Marohn joins us to talk about challenges to the Line 3 oil pipeline. More than 200 people were arrested this week during protests over concerns about safety, tribal water rights, and climate change. 

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Kirsti Marohn

Kirsti Marohn is a reporter covering water issues for Minnesota Public Radio in central Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky in for Ira Flatow. Later this hour, you’ll hear Ira’s conversation with Dr. Richard Levine, assistant secretary of health for the Department of Health and Human Services. But first, this week marked the end of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The company said it would stop the project after the Biden administration canceled the permit.

For more than a decade, the planned pipeline, which was to bring Canadian tar sands oil through several US states to the Gulf of Mexico, was opposed by environmentalists and Native American groups concerned about water safety, Indigenous rights, and the message that is sent about fossil fuels and climate change. But there’s another tar sands pipeline that’s in the news this week, and activists in Minnesota are raising some of the same concerns.


SPEAKER 1: Water is life!

SPEAKER 2: Protect the wildlife!

SPEAKER 1: Water is life!

SPEAKER 2: Protect the wildlife!

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s the sound of protesters at an Enbridge Energy pump station near Park Rapids, Minnesota. Many chained themselves to equipment to slow construction of a line three pipeline. More than 200 people were arrested during acts of civil disobedience, and the protests are expected to continue this weekend.

Minnesota Public Radio reporter Kirsti Marohn has been following the story. She covers water issues, and she’s here to tell us more. Kirsti, welcome to Science Friday. Thanks for joining us.

KIRSTI MAROHN: Thanks, John.

JOHN DANKOSKY: First of all, tell us about this pipeline project. Unlike Keystone, this isn’t brand new. Why does the company say that it’s needed?

KIRSTI MAROHN: Yeah, that’s right. Line 3 is actually part of a network of pipelines owned by this Canadian company, Enbridge Energy. And they transport crude oil from Canada’s Alberta province to refineries in the US. Enbridge says the original line 3 needs to be replaced because it was built back in the 1960s and it’s deteriorating. It’s actually been operating at half capacity.

So the new replacement pipeline would be larger and would be able to transport more oil. And Enbridge also says it would be made with stronger steel and would be safer. Enbridge has gotten all of the state and federal permits that it needs for the project, and construction actually has been underway since last December. And the company says it’s more than half done.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So tell us about the opposition to this pipeline. There are several legal challenges, including one that you were covering yesterday.

KIRSTI MAROHN: That’s right. Environmental groups don’t like this pipeline for several reasons. They say that Enbridge hasn’t proven that this expanded capacity to move more oil is even needed. They say it perpetuates the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, which exacerbate climate change, and that we should be moving toward cleaner energy instead.

Also opponents worry that this pipeline puts Minnesota’s natural resources at risk, especially its water, which is what we’re known for here in Minnesota. This is the land of 10,000 lakes and where the Mississippi River starts. And that’s because this replacement line is being built along a different route across northern Minnesota, where there’s lots of wetlands, and streams, and rivers. The pipeline would actually cross the Mississippi River twice. So opponents are really worried about the risk of an oil spill or a leak and what that would mean for the water and the ecosystem of this region.

There’s also an environmental justice aspect here, John. The Native American tribes have been at the forefront of the resistance against line 3. They say it violates their treaty rights to hunt, and fish, and gather wild rice on their ancestral lands. So there have been several legal challenges during the seven years that has taken the project to get this far.

And one of those we heard yesterday at a state appeals court hearing. There were arguments against the state water permit that was issued for this project. The tribes and the environmental groups argued that the state pollution control agency didn’t consider alternative routes that might have had less impact on streams and wetlands and that they didn’t do enough analysis on the effects on aquatic life that the pipeline might have on these water bodies. But state and federal judges so far haven’t agreed to halt the project while these appeals are moving through the courts, so the construction has been continuing.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s Kirsti Marohn of Minnesota Public Radio. Kirsti, thanks so much for following the story for us. I really appreciate it.

KIRSTI MAROHN: You’re welcome.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And now for some other science news of the week, the National Science Foundation could soon be getting a major overhaul and an expanded role focusing on funding cutting-edge science. That’s because this week the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that commits roughly $250 billion to technology research, AI, and semiconductor production. Here to tell us more and to share other science news of the week is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor with Scientific American. Hi, Sophie. Welcome back.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Hi, thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So while this seems pretty big for science, lots more money for technology research, tell me what prompted this act of generosity on the part of the Senate.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So I think there’s been a perception that we are in a race with other countries to have greater advancements in cutting-edge technology like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other areas. And in order to remain competitive, the US will need to put a lot of money towards funding basic research and development in these areas. And so that’s what this bill is attempting to do.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I know that semiconductor production was added to the bill. Is that, in some ways, a reaction to this global chip shortage that we’ve been experiencing?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I think so. The idea is that, because of supply chain disruptions during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s really made it clear just how much semiconductor production is taking place outside of the US. I think the US only has about 12% of the global share of semiconductor manufacturing. And so one of the goals of this bill is to bring some of that production back here and so that domestic companies will be making semiconductors, and that will reduce shortages due to similar supply-chain disruptions in the future.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Now, this is a rare bipartisan action in Congress. What is the likelihood of all this coming to pass and actually helping out science here in America?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So this passed the Senate with 68 versus 32 votes, so that’s a pretty significant margin, which suggests it has a good chance of making it through the House as well. But as with all bills, it will probably undergo a lot of changes on the way. So I think we could probably expect to continue seeing arguments over who should get control of this money, right?

Should it be an expanded role from the National Science Foundation? Or should we be channeling some of that money towards the Department of Energy, which runs a lot of national labs? So I think that kind of nitpicking is going to definitely be happening, but I would expect to see some version of this bill making it into law.

JOHN DANKOSKY: There’s also a pretty important report by the International Military Council on Climate and Security. It’s warning that climate change will threaten military operations and installations. Tell us more.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So climate change is accepted as a threat for a lot of people. But there are still skeptics who think that the worry about it is overblown. And this report is saying, look, for militaries all over the world, this is going to be an ongoing issue. Climate change is going to exacerbate problems like conflicts over land and conflicts over water, in particular.

It’s going to put installations that are near oceans at risk due to sea level rise. And it’s also going to– we’ll see more intense disasters such as a higher likelihood of intense hurricanes and other weather phenomena happening. And all of that is going to affect how the military operates, what soldiers are going to be tasked with doing all over the world, and what type of conflicts that they can expect to see. So this report is emphasizing the importance of preparing for these things happening but also of reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to military action.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So talking about things that the military is paying attention to, it seems as though the Pentagon is focusing on UFOs, and there’s a big report coming up later on this month. But we’ve got some details that have leaked early. What do we know?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: We know that this report, I think, is going to disappoint everyone.


That’s what we know so far. So this, the report that’s going to be released is the unclassified version, so it’s still going to keep some information back, which will probably be enough to keep UFO enthusiasts spinning theories and wondering about what we don’t know. But this report basically looks at incidents, videos, recordings of unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, which is the fancier term for incidents that we would probably call UFOs. And it looks at these incidents and tries to figure out what’s going on in them because one of the ideas, of the things that skeptics say is, look, you can trace a lot of these to errors.

A blip on the radar could be a problem with your instruments. A weird glow in a photo could be due to an error with your camera. It could be due to something on the ground. It could be due to a whole lot of things.

And one of the things that people say it might be due to is the US itself testing advanced technology that pilots or the instruments that capture these images are not aware of. So one of the things the report concludes is that a lot of these incidents are not advanced technology testing. That doesn’t mean that they’re aliens. There could still be a lot of other explanations. And in fact, some outside experts have complained about this report, that it doesn’t examine these incidents the way that they want them to.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’ve been following along the really dire situation in India right now and how it’s been hit by the second wave of COVID. Experts there are trying to figure out why. What have they come up with?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So some people have suggested that maybe it’s these new variants that have been coming out that are causing the severity of this surge because, when India experienced the first wave of COVID, it was relatively mild compared to how some other countries in the world dealt with it. But the experts seem to be agreeing now that the issue is less about scary new variants and more about just the way the different waves were handled.

So during the first wave, there was a very strict lockdown, which could have kept things under control. But partially because of the severity of that lockdown, there was opposition to doing another one as the second wave started to build momentum. And there continued to be large gatherings, big crowds, even in closed spaces, and so that could have exacerbated the spread of during the second wave and caused the crisis that India is experiencing now.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Some news coming out of the G7 Summit this week that could be good news for India and other low- and moderate-income countries, the Biden administration has said it’s going to purchase 500 million doses of COVID vaccine, and the other G7 leaders are planning to match that. So we could see more vaccines going to other countries as well.

Well, Sophie, let’s end with something a little bit fun and a little bit weird. We now have a Google Translate for elephants. What exactly does that mean?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, elephants aren’t necessarily speaking a language that you could type into Google Translate, but they do communicate through the movements of their ears and their bodies, through vocalizations, some of which are so low pitch that humans can’t actually hear them, and some of which actually cause vibrations in the ground.

So elephants are using all of these different methods to say things to each other. And now, researchers have compiled a really extensive echogram of what these elephants’ communications actually mean. They’ve got thousands of recordings of audio, video, and other proof of what the elephants are doing with their audio and with their body language and then what they’re intending to communicate with that, like are they saying, hey, let’s fight. Or are they saying, hey, it’s so great to see you again.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And does this exist for any other animals?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It does. There are epigrams for animals such as lab mice or chimpanzees. But this is extremely extensive, and it includes a lot of multimedia. So it’s really a digital epigram, and it is very extensive.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Sophie Bushwick is technology editor for Scientific American. Thanks so much for all the great stories, Sophie. I really appreciate it.


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Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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