Bill: Make ‘National Interest’ Explicit in NSF Grants

Lamar Smith
Texas Republican Lamar Smith is the chair of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
In February officials with the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Board trooped up Capitol Hill to present the NSF and NIST budget requests to the House of Representatives committee that oversees science and technology spending. On that day, the chairman of the House panel, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, was unusually insistent on getting the chairman of the National Science Board and the director of the NSF to endorse some specific language on scientific merit and the national interest, language that he was linking to failed legislation he had authored the year before.

Both Dan Arvizu of the NSB and France Córdova of the NSF seemed cagey about directly approving the language, even though it was fairly anodyne – who would oppose the national interest, after all? – and essentially was drawn both from the NSF’s original charter and a policy statement the NSF had issued a few months before.

“I can speak without hesitation that I support the goal,” Arvizu testified.

That wasn’t good enough. “Beyond the goal,” Smith pressed, “do you support the language?”

Arvizu relented. “With what we’ve seen so far, I think we can support the language.”

It was widely expected then that Smith intended to reintroduce his failed bill, the Frontiers in Innovation, Science, and Technology (FIRST) act, or at least some aspects of it. Since portions of that bill had been criticized by the National Science Board, and generally castigated by the larger science and academic community, some reluctance in answering even innocent questions — that then might have been construed as a larger endorsement — might have seemed in order. There is, after all, no universally accepted definition of “national Interest.”

This week Smith introduced a three-page bill, the Scientific Research in the National Interest Act (officially House Resolution 3293), which mandates that each NSF public announcement of a grant award be accompanied by a non-technical explanation of the project’s scientific merits and how it serves the national interest.

Citing past NSF-funded projects that he deemed had not met this low bar, Smith said a press release, “federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used on such research instead of on more worthy projects.”

In that release, Smith cited the earlier meeting with Córdova and explained that his innocuous request was indeed innocuous:

At a Science Committee hearing held earlier this year, NSF Director France Córdova agreed with a legislative effort to uphold a national interest standard for taxpayer-funded research grants. The Scientific Research in the National Interest Act is virtually identical to a provision that passed the House this spring as part of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015. The bill states that the NSF written justification is to be made after a proposal has completed NSF’s reviews for merit and broad impacts.  The bill clearly states, “Nothing in this section shall be construed as altering the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications.”

The same science and academic associations that opposed Smith’s FIRST bill, and which oppose the current version of the COMPETES reauthorization, so far have not overwhelmingly opposed Smith’s newest effort but have expressed deep skepticism that his idea of ‘national interest’ will in no way gibe with theirs. For example, the American Psychological Association, in an echo of Arvizu’s February testimony, accepts the bill’s stated goal but is leery of the language:

The American Psychological Association supports the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) implementation (already underway) of increased transparency and accountability policies regarding its funding of fundamental research. We are concerned that in the press release announcing the new Scientific Research in the National Interest Act, Chairman Smith again substitutes political review for peer review in explicitly attacking individual NSF grants. This appears to belie his stated intention to refrain from “altering the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications.” APA is opposed to any efforts that would discourage researchers from proposing cutting-edge projects and stifle the progress of scientific innovation and discovery.”

In its statement of “serious concerns,” the American Anthropological Association agreed that taxpayer dollars are precious, but suggested that fact didn’t give politicians special powers to discern what constitutes good science.

We are mindful that researchers must be accountable for the federal dollars that support us. We also believe, however, that it is ill-advised for Congress to exert political pressure and impose a “selection of science” based on something other than scientific merit.

The Consortium of Social Science Associations (a Social Science Space partner) also walked a fine line of expressing enormous skepticism but not veering into outright dismissal, saying, “we object to political interference in the determination of ‘what is worthwhile science in the national interest.’”

In its statement, COSSA cut to the heart of the disagreement – who decides what is in the national interest when it comes to science, politicians or scientists: “While H.R  3293 states, ‘Nothing in this  section shall  be construed as altering the foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications,’ the bill seeks  to codify a definition of “national interest” that could be interpreted in ways that would do just that.” It added that since the NSF already supports the stated goal, there is no need to add this legislation to the pile.

Smith acknowledged NSF’s noble plans, but explained, “This legislation makes this commitment permanent.”

It’s not that there is no attempt at supplying a definition. Smith’s bill offers a seven-point test. An NSF grant would be in the national interest if it: increases the nation’s economic competitiveness, advances Americans’ health and welfare, develops a national science and technology workforce that is globally competitive, increases Americans’ science and technology literacy or engagement, increases academia’s connection with industry, supports national defense, or promotes the progress of science in the U.S. Given Smith’s attempts to halve social science spending in the COMPETES reauthorization, it’s an open questions as to whether social science fits well into these criteria’s definition of ‘science.’

Smith’s bill has two Democratic co-sponsors – Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Alan Grayson of Florida — among the 16 Republicans alongside Smith. Members of the science and academic community had met with Lipinski just the week before Smith’s press release to express their concerns about the ‘national interest’ language in the COMPETES bill and Lipinski’s support for that language. Attendees at that meeting reported that the congressman believes that the seventh criteria in defining national interest, that a worthy grant promotes the progress of science, is broad enough to protect the current NSF peer-review process from running afoul of the letter of the law.

Most Democrats, however, will likely oppose the new legislation. The leading Democrat on Smith’s Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson (also a Texan), echoed the idea that Smith’s ‘national interest’ wouldn’t be universally recognized as such.  “Chairman Smith has been investigating NSF grants he doesn’t like since he became chairman of the committee. This legislative effort is very much connected to his effort to impose his own, political level of review on NSF’s gold standard merit-review process.”

Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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