UPDATE, 11 February 2016 – The House of Representatives passed the “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act,” H.R.3293, on Wednesday, 10 February. The vote of 236 to 178 was mostly along party lines, with 7 Democrats joining Republicans to pass the legislation, and 4 Republicans joining Democrats in an attempt to halt the legislation.
Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, pinpointed projects he deemed not in the national interest and said, “When the NSF funds such projects there is less money to support worthwhile scientific research that keeps our country on the forefront of innovation,” in a statement marking passage of the bill.
Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member of the House, Science, Space, and Technology Committee, opposed the bill and said, “At its core, this bill is about second guessing our Nation’s best and brightest scientists, and the grant making decisions they make,” in a statement. “My biggest concern about these new requirements is they will push NSF to fund less high-risk research, which, by its very nature entails the pursuit of scientific understanding without necessarily any particular or known benefit,” she continued.
John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, released an official comment on the bill. The bill “seeks to superimpose onto NSF’s current process of merit review and transparency the requirement that each NSF award “for basic research and education in the sciences” be accompanied by a public written justification describing how the award not only “promotes the progress of science in the United States” but is also “worthy of Federal funding” and “in the national interest.” This requirement is both unnecessary and potentially damaging,” Holdren wrote.
The Executive Office of the President issued a Statement of Administration Policy that “strongly opposes” House passage of H.R. 3293. “Contrary to its stated purpose, 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,” the statement reads. “If the President were presented with with H.R. 3293, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.”
Washington, D.C. – A bipartisan act that requires the National Science Foundation to justify, in nontechnical writing, how each awarded research grant supports the national interest was approved by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on October 8.
“Unfortunately, in recent years, the federal government has awarded too many grants that few Americans would consider to be in the national interest,” Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in a statement. The “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act,” H.R.3293, “will add transparency, accountability and credibility to the NSF and its grant process, which will help the NSF earn the public’s support,” Smith continued.
Much of the language in the bill reflects that of the “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015,” or H.R.1806. Like the COMPETES act, the new bill asks NSF to be more transparent in how it awards grants and accountable for providing public statements that explain how each grant serves the national interest.
Research that serves the national interest is defined by Congress as having the potential to increase economic competitiveness, advance health and welfare, develop a competitive STEM workforce, increase public scientific literacy, increase partnerships between academia and industry, support national defense or promote scientific progress, according to the recently passed act.
Under the new act, NSF would determine whether a grant proposal serves the national interest after the proposal has passed its reviews for merit and broader impacts. “Nothing in this section [of the bill] shall be construed as altering the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications,” the act states.
Dissenters to the bill
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the ranking member of the committee, asked why the bill was necessary, since the current process of awarding grants hasn’t been problematic. The bill ignores input from the scientific community and sets the stage for a kind of “witch hunt,” Johnson said. Provisions in the bill will squash creativity and inhibit high-risk high reward research, she continued.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) echoed Johnson’s sentiments, and emphasized the scientific community’s opposition to the legislation, including John Holdren, Senior Science Advisor to President Barack Obama. In a hearing two years ago with a similar agenda, Holdren said, “I think it’s a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding.”
The bill could impose a political agenda on the NSF review process – substituting political review for peer review is a bad thing, especially since NSF has already taken steps to be more transparent in how it awards grants, Lofgren said. The agency revised its proposal and award policies in December 2014 to include non-technical descriptions of research grants that link scientific research to the national interest.
Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), a physicist and elected fellow of the American Physical Society, said, “the NSF merit review process is known as the gold standard for a reason.” Foster said that as a scientist who observed peer review and merit review process, he does not think the system is lacking in accountability.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) shared a story about the unexpected practicability of seemingly impractical science. “Back in 1961, a scientist from Japan who was studying at Princeton got a little bit of money to study why jellyfish glow green. Under this proposed legislation many of us might have said, ‘Why do we care why jellyfish glow green?’” However, from that research scientists have a better understanding of genetics, biology and diseases three decades later, Edwards said.
Despite opposition, the bill passed by voice vote. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) spoke in support of the bill and said it “recognizes a simple fact, which is that there is such a thing as practical science,” which can “solve solvable problems” and improve people’s lives. “It’s a fact that there are limited resources, and whenever you have limited resources, you have to make choices, sometimes difficult choices,” Grayson said.
By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow