National Science Board Critical of FIRST Elements

National Science Board logoTaking its role as policy adviser to the president and U.S. Congress to heart, the National Science Board today released a short statement critical of some aspects of a bill that in its current incarnation reduces government spending on social science research.

The step by the board, which governs the federal National Science Foundation, was termed “unprecedented” by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s ScienceInsider website.

According to the NSF website:

The second role of the Board is to serve as an independent body of advisors to both the President and the Congress on policy matters related to science and engineering and education in science and engineering. In addition to major reports, the NSB also publishes occasional policy papers or statements on issues of importance to U.S. science and engineering.

The board routinely issues statements about broad directions for government policy that may not please everyone, but it’s almost unheard of for the executive branch entity to challenge a specific piece of pending legislation.

The Frontiers in Innovation, Science, and Technology, or FIRST, act would reauthorize funding for the NSF for the current and next fiscal years. The bill is sponsored by Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

While the amount FIRST suggests—a little over $7 billion a year—actually exceeds the administration’s request, the language of the bill also parses out how that money will be apportioned to the seven research-funding directorates in the NSF. That is unusual, although not unknown; traditionally Congress gives the NSF a lump sum and lets it decide how best to fund research requests. More unusual, and contentious, the bill reduces the funding for the Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Science from current levels and distributes that money across most of the other directorates. As Smith was quoted in a March release, “Unfortunately, NSF has misused taxpayer dollars and funded too many questionable research grants – money that could have gone to higher priorities.”

The science board said it was concerned with “elements” of the FIRST bill, in particular this redistribution.

Our greatest concern is that the bill’s specification of budget allocations to each NSF Directorate would significantly impede NSF’s flexibility to deploy its funds to support the best ideas in fulfillment of its mission to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.”

Such concerns about the FIRST bill have been percolating in the social –and broader—science community for some time, including concerns about peer review and open access provisions. But the perceived assault on funding for social sciences has drawn the sharpest criticisms. Their counter-arguments cite some of the language of FIRST’s proponents, suggesting that a strong economy requires support for all research disciplines. “To ensure our national competitiveness, we need to maintain a strong foundation of basic research across all scientific disciplines, from the physical, mathematical and life sciences, to engineering, to the social, economic and behavioral sciences,” read one statement signed by dozens of universities, societies and companies. (SAGE, the parent of Social Science Space, has also gone on record opposing FIRST’s “cuts to social, behavioral, and economic science funding and political interference in the NSF grant-application process.”)

According to Smith, FIRST “expands accountability and transparency requirements so that only high quality research receives taxpayer funds.” The National Science Board agreed that these are important principles—and that the NSF is already working to strengthen its commitment toward meeting them: “NSF management and the National Science Board are implementing new processes that will increase both transparency and accountability. We therefore do not see a need to impose new, more inflexible, legislated requirements on NSF and our science and engineering communities. We are concerned that the proposed new legislative requirements might discourage visionary proposals or transformative science at a time when advancing the decades-long U.S. leadership in science and technology is a top priority.”

Smith, emailing a response to ScienceInsider, said this “last-minute” commitment was too little and too late. “The internal policy would continue to allow the NSF to evade responsibility for their decisions to fund questionable grants. The NSF wants to be the only federal agency to get a blank check signed by taxpayers, without having to justify how the money is spent.”

FIRST is one of several bills in the House that re-authorize funding recently handled by the America COMPETES Act.  A bill proposed by the Democratic minority in the House, which has little to no chance of passing the chamber, does not propose granular control of the NSF budget and also includes other federal research agencies that were part of COMPETES but are not part of FIRST.

FIRST has already passed through one markup, by the science committee’s research subcommittee. At that session, the SBE directorate saw its proposed allocation rise from $150 million to $200 million in the current fiscal year—an amount that was still $67 million shy of what the directorate had been receiving. SBE’s piece of the total NSF pieces is about 3.5 percent of the total. Ultimately, though, the House Appropriations Committee will determine any specific dollar amounts, although it can’t banish the specter of establishing congressional “micromanagement” that scares many of those critical of FIRST. The committee’s Commerce, Science and Justice subcommittee will start marking up the 2015 appropriation for research agencies on April 30.

While Smith and other partisans of FIRST have cited a desire for smart spending and high-quality research in their proposals that shave social science spending,  opposition to social science has been a persistent feature of GOP rhetoric. As political scientist Jeanne Zaino noted last summer, conservatives have sought to eliminate funding for social science back to at least the mid-1940. She cited the language of Rep. Peter Wood in a 2011 House debate: “Among the projects and programs Wood named were any ‘infected by post-modern ideologies’ including those ‘designed to advance women and minorities in the social sciences’ and ‘sustainability-education programs.’”

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