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Proposed legislation provokes debate about federal research

Physical sciences would gain; social sciences would lose; peer review is said to be threatened.

“The Obama administration and the scientific community at large are expressing serious alarm,” reports the Huffington Post, “at a House Republican bill that they argue would dramatically undermine the way research is conducted in America.” The bill has stirred some media discussion, in a few cases from high-profile figures.

The Huffington Post article’s opening continues:

Titled the “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014,” the bill would put a variety of new restrictions on how funds are doled out by the National Science Foundation. The goal, per its Republican supporters on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, would be to weed out projects whose cost can’t be justified or whose sociological purpose is not apparent.

For Democrats and advocates, however, the FIRST Act represents a dangerous injection of politics into science and a direct assault on the much-cherished peer-review process by which grants are awarded.

“Direct assault”? An April Boston Globe commentary also opened with “war against science” framing:

If Republicans have their way, a Harvard University anthropologist would not be using tax dollars to study the impact of China’s one-child policy. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist would not have the money to research how Medicare changes might shape seniors’ political attitudes. And a Brown University archeologist would not be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars examining textiles from the Viking Age.

This is the latest front in a GOP-led war against the federal funding of social science and other research, including the study of climate change, in an age of fiscal austerity. House Republicans are questioning millions of dollars in National Science Foundation grants awarded to researchers across the country by singling out dozens of projects for extra scrutiny.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Cornell University president David J. Skorton notes that the FIRST Act would actually “reauthorize a number of agencies and programs.” He stipulates that it “has many important, positive aspects” but warns that it’s “marred by two issues,” namely, “a substantial reduction in funding for social science research” and “the addition of a potentially devastating layer of review to ensure any research is ‘worthy of federal funding’ and ‘in the national interest.’” Concerning the social science, Skorton declares, “A life in medicine and science has taught me that our most difficult challenges may require scientific expertise but will not be solved by science alone.”  However, the “more troubling problem,” he cautions, is the legislation’s “addition of a potential political filter to the peer-review system.”

Tracy Jan, author of the Boston Globe commentary, engaged the same issues. She reported comments by John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as expressed at a House Science Committee hearing on science-agency budgets:

“Some of the funny-sounding titles, when you look into them, do make a lot of sense,” said Holdren, an environmental policy and earth and planetary science professor at Harvard. “I just don’t feel that most people in this room are well qualified to second-guess NSF’s superb peer review committees.”

Social science research helps the nation understand poverty, control the spread of infectious diseases, reduce human trafficking, understand the conduct of other nations and the effectiveness of sanctions, and optimize disaster response, among other benefits, Holdren said.

Jan mentioned that Republicans have questioned the merits of some biological research—citing, for example, the work discussed last year in this venue under the headline “Federally funded study of ducks’ reproductive evolution ignites a media controversy.” She also quoted Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, who chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee: “We have to question spending nearly $700,000 of taxpayer dollars to fund a climate change musical or over $220,000 to study animal photos in National Geographic. It’s the role of Congress to make sure we’re using limited federal funds for the highest priority research.” She also quoted Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat on the committee, who called the bill an “opportunistic approach to defunding or attacking certain areas of science that you either don’t agree with or that you don’t want to see what the results might actually be.”

The Huffington Post article emphasizes high-level concern within science:

In a show of protest that several officials in the science advocacy community could not recall having witnessed before, the National Science Board released a statement in late April criticizing the bill. As the oversight body to the National Science Foundation, the NSB traditionally stays out of legislative fights. So when it warned that the FIRST Act could “significantly impede NSF’s flexibility to deploy its funds to support the best ideas,” advocates said they were surprised and pleased.

“The fact that the NSB commented on legislation, I don’t know if it is unprecedented but it is at least extremely unusual,” said Barry Toiv, a top official at the Association of American Universities. “And we think that speaks to the really serious problems posed by the legislation.”

Science magazine has reported on the NSB’s five-paragraph statement. The Huffington Post piece quotes a statement from Smith:

What is broken is NSF’s refusal to provide Congress and American taxpayers with basic information about how NSF-funded grants are in the national interest. . . . President Harry Truman vetoed the first NSF-enabling legislation because he concluded it didn’t protect taxpayers’ right to know about how the agency would spend their money. It’s unfortunate that the president’s science advisor would rather provide NSF with a blank check than set basic standards of transparency. The NSF’s cornerstone remains solid, but its boarded up windows are what need repair.

In an 8 May article, Scientific American referred to the act as “Congress’s unprecedented effort to cap spending on specific scientific research projects” and said the bill “seeks to prioritize research and development in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering and mathematics to specifically address national needs.” That article reported comments from Neal Lane, a Clinton administration counterpart of Holdren who has also served as NSF director. Lane criticized the legislation for threatening to “micromanage the funding allocation of these science agencies” and declared that the committee “is trying to have it both ways—telling the scientific community that it’s not undermining the peer review process while at the same time telling the director that she must declare that every proposal meets the committee's criteria, apparently to convince the American public that the committee is paying closer attention to spending on science.” Lane added, “This reflects a lack of understanding with regard to the decision-making peer review process that goes into funding the best research.” Repeating a commonly heard objection, Lane also told Scientific American that “Congress does not have the scientific expertise to second-guess an agency like the NSF or the peer review process used to make difficult funding decisions.”

Smith responded to the Lane interview by asking for equal time. On 21 May, the magazine posted two commentaries, one by a pair of former university presidents—Hunter Rawlings, now president of the Association of American Universities, and Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities—and one by Smith.

Rawlings and McPherson bring in the issue of open access to scientific publications, predicting that the act “would undo the policy agreement that should soon give the public free access to the published results of federally funded research no more than 12 months following publication. Rather, the bill would keep the results from free public access for two years or more.” And they argue that their view is the actually conservative one:

Nearly 70 years ago this country adopted an approach to research that supported scientists at universities in order to combine research and education, grounded in the notion that science should be funded based on merit, not politics. It was a fundamentally conservative notion. Other countries relied on a government research apparatus but this country planted seeds at institutions—in Columbus and Berkeley, in Baltimore and Chapel Hill, in College Park, College Station and State College. And the seeds sprouted. Several technological and medical revolutions later the world gets it and is beginning to replicate our success. Only one major country is starting to move away from this model: the US.

Smith’s piece, under the headline “The role of Congress is to set priorities for research,” begins by warning that the US is losing its international lead in research and development, in particular to China. The committee chairman then lodges this charge:

Unfortunately, there has been a shift in priorities at the National Science Foundation (NSF) away from basic research in engineering and the physical sciences toward social/behavioral/economic (SBE) studies. In his budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 the president proposes to increase SBE by more than 5 percent while freezing or cutting funds for engineering and physical sciences.

I believe the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act sets a better course for taxpayer-funded research. The FIRST Act refocuses taxpayer investments on basic research in engineering, mathematics, computer science and biology, increasing funding for those NSF directorates by between 7 and 8 percent for the next fiscal year. These are the areas singled out by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine as the primary drivers of our economic future. These are the areas of science with the greatest potential to yield transformational new technologies, catalyze new industries and businesses as well as create millions of new jobs.

Smith asserts that Lane “apparently has forgotten that [President] Clinton signed the NSF Authorization Act of 1998, which was just as specific in delineating research priorities as the FIRST Act.”

Lane, by the way, mentioned in the Scientific American interview that he expects the bill to fail.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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