NSF Policy Bill, Without Budget Authorization, Looks Likely to Pass

Cory Gardner
Cory Gardner, a Republican senator from Colorado, sponsored the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act when it was introduced in June. The first line in its summery reads, “This bill calls on the National Science Foundation (NSF) to maintain the intellectual merit and broader impacts criteria as the basis for evaluating grant proposals in the merit review process.”

UPDATE: Today, December 16, the House of Representatives passed without objection the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, Senate Bill 3084. It now moves to the president’s desk for signing.

A bill setting policy for the National Science Foundation — which pays for much of the basic social and behavioral science research conducted at American universities – looks set to pass the U.S Congress without a provision that set teeth on edge in the social science community. Social science organizations such as the Consortium of Social Science Associations have not opposed the bill – nor have they called for supporting it.

The American Innovation and Competiveness Act passed the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on December 1 and representatives from the majority Republican and minority Democratic parties are in broad agreement on the legislation, which is expected to be on President Obama’s desk before the current Congress ends.

The bill covers material in the beloved 2007 and 2010 America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) acts, which supported scientific research as a way to enhance the nation’s economy. The policy language in COMPETES and in the new bill covers activities at the NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology; what is not included is ‘authorization’ language for their budgets. An authorization bill allows the Congress to set aside the money for these agencies; an appropriations bill would still be necessary to supply the actual cash. While it started life as an authorization bill, the current version gives no numbers for the budgets of the NSF or NIST.

Earlier versions which originated in the House of Representatives followed in a tradition of recent authorization bills routed through the House Science Committee which included nettlesome language which seemed to deprecate social and behavioral research. Some of that language remains in the current version’s 187 pages, albeit in a repurposed frame. The biggest and most welcome change, from the viewpoint of the social science community, is the removal of directions telling the NSF exactly how much it could spend on each of its seven grant-making directorates – and which in the process reduced the amount the foundation usually spends on social science and on geosciences. But since it’s no longer an authorization bill, such language does not have a place.

Social science has long been in the crosshairs of some Republican legislators, while geoscience includes research on climate change, also a bête noire topic for many in the GOP.

Some portions of the current bill, which most closely resembles the more-bipartisan Senate-originated version and not the House’s, still have certain language which seems to set the stage for future attacks on social and behavioral science funding. Specifically, it sets up tests to ensure that any spending by the NSF be “in the national interest” and also be “high quality.” While that seems an anodyne test at best – would the NSF intentionally fund either a poor-quality project or one that wasn’t in the national interest? – those phrases have been deployed in past attacks on social science projects which didn’t meet the legislator’s own definition of “in the national interest.”

Earlier versions of the bill included a seven-part test to help determine what qualified as the national interest, with provisions such as advancing the health and welfare of the people, increasing science literacy, improving national security and serving the U.S. economy. The new version features a six-part test, excising the “promotion of the progress of science for the United States,” which had been seen as a potential shield for social science research.

The current bill includes additional anodyne language nonetheless seen as telegraphing possible future attacks, according to some observers. In a section that concerns “confidence” in science research the bill reads, “the Foundation has improved transparency and accountability of the outcomes made through the merit review process,” reads one section, “but additional transparency into individual grants is valuable in communicating and assuring the public value of federally funded research. [T]he Foundation should commit to transparency and accountability and to clear, consistent public communication regarding the national interest for each Foundation-awarded grant and cooperative agreement.” Taking potshots at individual social science grants – especially those that sound weird – has long been a congressional pastime, and this language, some feel, sets the stage for future sniping.

Most of these language disputes have seen the social science community address the idea that “scientific merit” is best determined by scientist reviewers, and if politicians wielding “national interest” cudgels make these determinations that upsets that process. In his article on the new bill (which covers other aspects such as conference travel and misconduct provisions), Science magazine’s Jeffery Mervis suggests that such a line of attack by legislators may have been watered down a bit:

The “national interest” categories favored by [House Science Committee Chairman] Representative [Lamar] Smith remain in the bill—increasing economic competitiveness, advancing the health and welfare of the public, training a globally competitive workforce, strengthening national security, and enhancing partnerships between academia and industry. But they are now listed as examples of how researchers can satisfy NSF’s second criterion—broader impacts—rather than as the primary rationale for the proposed research.

Neither the NSF not NIST has made any official statements about the bill.

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