Bill That Seeks ‘National Interest’ Justifications for NSF Grants Advances

Donna Edwards STEM award
During a STEM on the Hill reception in March, Rep. Donna Edwards received the George E. Brown Award for her vision in promoting public policies that benefit science and engineering. Here she’s congratulated by Robert Lieberman of the Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE).

A three-page bill that would require the National Science Foundation to justify, in writing, that every grant it makes is in the national interest and “worthy of federal funding” passed the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives this morning and will next be voted on by the full House. A number of science advocates, noting that NSF already does much of what the bill calls for and who see political interference lurking in the bill’s anodyne phrasing, oppose the bill.

According to the bill’s author, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, the Scientific Research in the National Interest Act counteracts a trend in which NSF has “awarded too many grants that few Americans would consider in the national interest.” Although Smith didn’t name specific grants during his spoken comments today, in the past he’s routinely cited research on subjects such as $220,000 to study animal photos in National Geographic, $50,000 to study lawsuits in Peru in the 1600s and $350,000 to analyze early human-set fires in New Zealand as being wasteful, while extolling unnamed research in areas like computer science, nanotech and medicine that produces “revolutionary breakthroughs.”

Opponents of House Resolution 3293, led by the ranking Democrat on the panel, Eddie Bernice Johnson (also from Texas), argue that such breakthroughs often pop up from basic research that would have drawn the chairman’s scorn based on the “silly name” of the research’s abstract. As examples of this silly-but-serious theme, Donna Edwards of Maryland marshaled her own anecdotes, including noting a chain of NSF grants dating back to a 1961 bit of research on why jellyfish glow green that ultimately led to breakthroughs in cancer and Alzheimer’s research and a Nobel Prize in 2008.

“I’m really dismayed that we are then going forward with this track of substituting peer review … for our political instincts of what works and not,” Edwards said.

That fear has been expressed by a number of scholarly societies. For instance, the American Anthropological Association in July said, 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.”

Smith, who chairs the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has been introducing bills similar to HR 3293 for some time, starting with his High Quality Research Act in 2012 and language in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act this year, a litany Johnson referred to as two-and-a-half-year “witch hunt.”

The current bill calls for the NSF to justify each grant it makes as serving the national interest by meeting one of seven tests: increasing economic competitiveness in the United States; advancing the health and welfare of the American public; developing an American science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) workforce that is globally competitive; increasing public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology ; increasing partnerships between academia and industry in the United States; supporting national defense; or promoting the progress of science for the United States. Each grant is expected to carry a description in non-technical language of how it serves at least one of these interests.

Since January NSF has already been doing something similar, which Smith acknowledged “to [NSF] Director {France} Cordova and the NSF’s credit” parallels the bill’s effort. He added that the NSF peer review process “is and should remain the centerpiece” of grant decisions, but that his legislation merely adds “transparency and accountability to that process.”

Democrats, however, saw snakes in this garden, with Johnson arguing that the bill “sadly” adds a layer of political review on top of NSF’s gold-standard merit-review system. Saying she suspected “there can be room for debate on a few of those 11,000 grants “ NSF’s $6 billion research budget supports each year, “the place for that debate is not the Hall of Congress” and “according to what Chairman Smith thinks should be or shouldn’t be funded.”

Johnson argued that the message to scientists was to avoid risks lest they be castigated by Congress, with a resulting focus on projects that can only pay off instantly. “But what is research if you don’t take risks?” she asked.

Two Democrats on the Science panel support the bill. One of them, Alan Grayson of Florida, said the legislation “recognizes a simple fact, that there is something called practical science,” and with limited federal resources “we have to make choices, and sometimes difficult choices.” Nonetheless, he said he expected most bills would have no difficulty justifying that they promote the progress of science for the United States.

Grayson was the only member of Congress to utter the phrase “social science” during the mark-up session, arguing that most fundamental behavioral and social science research serves to advance the health and welfare of the American public. Given fears that Chairman Smith has been gunning for social and behavioral science in the past, the social science community has been among the most fearful of the practical effects of this legislation.

Furthermore, Grayson said, he expects the bill’s seven-part tests “to be construed broadly and liberally,” drawing a later comment from the conservative Smith that he expects them “to be interpreted broadly but probably not liberally.”

Democrat Bill Foster of Illinois, a physicist and the only scientist on the Science committee, said he was disappointed to see the panel “reconsidering this redundant and unnecessary provision” since NSF has already done this. Plus, he added, the legislation “carries with it presupposition that this system is broken … I do not share this belief.”

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