No Drama As 2017 Science Funding Bill Passes Key Committee Vote

Federal budget processFollowing a drama-free debut in subcommittee last week, the full Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives on a voice vote approved a 2017 funding bill for commerce, justice and science agencies in the U.S. government. The bill, whose $56 billion total includes $7.4 billion for the National Science Foundation, will next go to a vote in front of the full House.

A companion bill in the Senate has already been passed by that chamber.

The Commerce, Justice, and Science bill, or CJS, is of great interest to the social science community because the National Science Foundation pays for much of the university-based basic research in social and behavioral science conducted in the U.S. So the interest lies in both the bottom line amount NSF can expect, and any additional language that may hinder or help research. (The Commerce portion of the bill also pays for the U.S. Census and other key data-originating agencies.)

On the bottom line figure of $7.4 billion, the committee recommends $6.079 billion go to research grants, $46 million more than set aside for the current fiscal year. And no language affecting how the research money is allocated by the foundation is part of the bill; in past years there had been efforts to reduce how much money the NSF would have spent on social, behavioral and economic research.

There is a 112-page report that accompanies the bill; that report details the thinking behind the appropriation and the direction legislators would like to see the executive branch agencies to take. Some of that direction is very hands-on, such as noting that the research budget includes $1476 million for NSF’s contributions to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN, initiative, or to support research in high-performance computing. There is also language that hits more generally at how the NSF operates in general, such as its merit-review process for making decisions and on how projects must explain their value to the general public.

On peer review, for example, the report says, “The Committee has long been supportive of NSF’s peer review process to identify and recommend funding for scientifically meritorious research. NSF’s ability to fund cutting-edge research helps keep the United States at the forefront of research across all scientific disciplines, which in turn builds the technological capabilities that underpin economic growth and prosperity.”

In the next paragraph, the report looks at abstracts to the grant proposals, and states that “improving the peer review process and project abstracts are critical to protecting NSF’s stellar scientific integrity.” Ignoring the question of what in the NSF’s peer-review process needs fixing, the report then details how abstracts can be better – by adhering to the NSF’s own statutory mission:

The Committee directs NSF to continue its efforts to ensure that award abstracts clearly explain in plain English the intent of the project and how the project meets both the intellectual merit and the broader impact review criterion. … The Committee believes that abstracts should explain how a project increases economic competitiveness in the United States; advances the health and welfare of the American public; develops an American STEM workforce, including computer science and information technology sectors, that are globally competitive; increases public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the United States; increases partnerships between academia and industry in the United States; supports the national defense of the United States; or promotes the progress of science for the United States.

While that is fairly vanilla language, it recalls Congressman Lamar Smith’s Scientific Research in the National Interest Act, which echoes that anodyne language but is seen by some in the social science community as a Trojan horse for future attacks on some types of research that offends conservatives, specifically in the social and geo sciences. The language isn’t identical, though, and one particularly nettlesome provision that requires grants to be “worthy of Federal funding” is replaced with “promotes the progress of science.”

Smith, a Republican from Texas, is the chairman of the House Science Committee. That committee authorizes funding for the NSF, while the Appropriations Committee actually finds and allocates the money.

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