Lamar Smith’s National Interest Bill Passes House

Rep Lamar Smith
Lamar Smith, an eight-term Republican representing the Austin/Kerrville/ San Antonio areas of Texas in the House of Representatives, is the current chairman of the House Science Committee.
The congressman from Texas, Lamar Smith, repeatedly pleaded with his fellow legislators to just read his bill. “Every criticism,” he said, “could be addressed if those who opposed took the time to read the bill. It’s only three pages long.”

Later in the hearing, the congresswoman from Texas, Eddie Bernice Johnson, came up with a fitting retort, arguing that supporters of the bill might cease and desist if they only read past the title of seemingly silly scientific initiatives. “Apparently,” she chided, “it is harder for them to spend five minutes reading the abstract.”

So went several hours of back-forth volleying Wednesday that saw the congressman’s bill, known as the Scientific Research in the National Interest Act, pass the U.S. House of Representatives on a lopsided, and partisan, 236-178 vote. Its three pages, as its own abstract explains, seeks only “to provide for greater accountability in federal funding for scientific research, to promote the progress of science in the United States that serves that national interest.” To do so, it asks that before making a research grant that the National Science Foundation determine that the proposal serves the national interest – a handy set of seven criteria is included to make that determination – and that the grant authors provide a plain-language justification to explain just how it does so.

On the surface, the requests are innocent, and in fact replicate – minus the seven-point test – policy that has been standard at the NSF for more than a year. As Smith repeatedly made pains to point out, the current director of the NSF and the foundation’s overseers, the National Science Board, have already endorsed the gist of his bill. (That ‘endorsement’ made for interesting theater in February 2015.)

The 7 Criteria

HR 3293 tells “… the responsible Foundation official as to how the research grant or cooperative agreement promotes the progress of science in the United States, consistent with the Foundation mission as established in the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 (42 21 U.S.C. 1861 et seq.), and further—
(1) is worthy of Federal funding; and
(2) is in the national interest, as indicated by having the potential to achieve
(A) increased economic competitiveness in 2 the United States;
(B) advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;
(C) development of an American STEM workforce that is globally competitive;
(D) increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the United States;
(E) increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States;
(F) support for the national defense of the United States; or
(G) promotion of the progress of science for the United States.

And yet … The bill is generally disliked by the scientific community – especially those in the social, behavioral and climate sciences – although the community is divided on how vigorously it should fight the measure. The Consortium of Social Science Associations, which to be clear is a partner of Social Science Space, decided last July, when the bill first arose, that it would call out the bill, officially known as House Resolution 3293. “While HR 3293 states, ‘Nothing in the bill shall be construed as altering the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant proposals,’ the bill seeks to codify a definition of ‘national interest’ that could be interpreted in ways that would do just that.”

It doesn’t help that the language of the bill repeats portions of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act that didn’t make it out of Congress last year and Smith’s Frontiers in Innovation, Science, and Technology Act which didn’t make the cut the year before. Both bills were widely hated by the science community; the National Science Board took the extremely unusual step of publicly criticizing FIRST. In addition, Smith’s current rhetoric and his press releases mimic his outreach from the last two years, citing a list – now up to 41 grants – of past grants that don’t serve the national interest.

And so Smith brought out his well-worn set of anecdotes to support his case. As he wrote in a recent issue of Issues in Science and Technology magazine, and which he sent around this week in a ‘dear colleague letter, “[H] how is spending $700,000 on a climate change musical encouraging transformative research? What is high-risk, high-reward about spending $340,000 to study early human-set fires in New Zealand? What is groundbreaking about spending $487,000 to study the Icelandic textile industry during the Viking era? There may well be good answers to those questions, but we weren’t able to come up with them. When NSF funds projects that don’t meet such standards, there is less money to support scientific research that keeps our country at the forefront of innovation.”

To many of his opponents, it appears that Smith is rebuilding the full edifice they oppose, but doing it brick by brick. As one observer in the social science lobbying world put it in an off-the-record conversation, “it appears to be part of an overall strategy by Lamar to enact his agenda piecemeal,” and that agenda is generally perceived as defunding social science and defanging climate science.

That agenda has been pursued for several years by a number of conservative Republicans, who tend to present their arguments in economic terms. They described the present system in which NSF-selected scientists have the final call on what grants get funded as “a blank check signed by the American taxpayer.” Noting that NSF’s budget on $7 billion still only allows it to fund one in five grants proposed, Smith said, “we owe it to American taxpayers and the science community that every grant funded is worthy and in the national interest.”

While the optics of opposing greater transparency in federal spending make it a tricky bill to slam. Even Democrat Dan Lipinki, a Democratic co-sponsor of the bill, said, “it is difficult for me to see how the standard harms what the foundation does.” The minority Democrats, sans Lipinski, still made a game effort despite the inevitably of the Republican win when the final vote was gaveled in late Wednesday afternoon.

The Obama administration has already indicated the president would veto HR 3293 if it made it to his desk. “Contrary to its stated purpose, “ a ‘statement of administration policy’ released Tuesday read, “H.R. 3293 would add nothing to accountability in Federal funding for scientific research, while needlessly adding to bureaucratic burdens and overhead at the NSF. And, far from promoting the progress of science in the United States, it would replace the clarity of the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 with confusing language that could cast a shadow over the value of basic research which, by its nature, will have outcomes with contributions to national interests other than the progress of science which cannot be predicted in advance.”

That predicative aspect was the strongest argument made by the bill’s opponents on the House floor Wednesday. They offered their own barrage of anecdotes to rebut Smith’s list of 41. Johnson, the ranking member of the House Science Committee that Smith chairs, even bearded the lion in his den by suggesting that Smith’s derision of the New Zealand fire study ignored the benefits that the study – “Ecosystem Resilience to Human Impacts: Ecological Consequences of Early Human-Set Fires in New Zealand” – would have in the $2 billion a year fight against wildfires in the U.S. (That Smith routinely leaves out the “Ecosystem Resilience to Human Impacts” portion of geographers David McWethy and Cathy Whitlock’s research went unremarked.)

One key aspect, legislators implied, in determining if something is in the U.S. interest revolves around whether it studies something in the U.S. As Texas Republican Randy Weber added with comical effect when he too blasted the Kiwi firestarters study, it’s “over in another country.”

Democrats cited several silly NSF-funded studies that turned out not to be so silly, like a look at the sex life of the screw worm (savings of $20 billion to US cattle producers followed) or a look at colorful clay in France (turns out the clay has antibacterial properties). Smith in turn responded that those studies obviously had national significance – even though the poor screw worms were ridiculed on the floor of the Senate – and so would pass muster under his bill’s criteria.

And now the bill moves on, to the Senate. Hearings on the legislation have yet to be scheduled.

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