The Republican Assault on Science Funding: Could It Have Been Avoided?

Could supporters of the America COMPETES Act have headed off a Republican ambush last week of the bill on the House of Representatives's floor? That's what House Democrats, science lobbyists, and officials at the National Science Foundation (NSF) may want to ask themselves as they attempt to salvage the 5-year, $82-billion reauthorization to boost spending for research, education, and innovation at NSF and two other science agencies.

Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, might get a chance as early as Thursday to resurrect the bill, which is intended to double the agencies' budgets over 10 years and lay the groundwork for a host of new programs. But last Thursday's 292-to-126 vote against the bill (technically a motion to recommit H.R. 5116, after which Gordon withdrew the bill) raises two important questions: Were lobbyists and supportive lawmakers asleep at the switch, and did NSF officials bungle their response to an internal investigation of employees trafficking in computer-enabled pornography? (The behavior ranged from participating in live chat rooms to viewing nude photographs at work.)

Opportunistic House Republicans incorporated the fallout from that abuse of government resources into a last-minute amendment that led nearly half of the members of the majority party to vote against a bill that they otherwise strongly supported.

Here's what happened:

Acting on a tip, NSF's Inspector General discovered evidence of the illicit behavior in 2007 and reported it to NSF officials. The agency eventually took action against a dozen or so people who had committed serious infractions. "A significant fraction were terminated," says NSF Director Arden Bement. "I would guess that there are three or four left who were punished but who are still drawing a government salary." Bement says NSF "nipped it in the bud" by clarifying the agency's policies, improving workplace training, and strengthening its ability to monitor online activity. "We haven't had any recurrence of the problem," he adds. "I don't think there's any more of it going on."

Even so, the retention of a handful of workers—"the law is kinda murky in this area, and federal employees are provided a fair amount of protection," Bement observes—gave Republicans grounds to strike. The successful amendment, proposed by ranking committee member Ralph Hall (R–TX), would prohibit using any funds authorized "to pay the salary of any individual disciplined ... for viewing, downloading, or exchanging pornography, including child pornography," on government time or with a government computer. It also would freeze the budgets of the three agencies over the next 3 years, a rejection of the 10-year doubling path that the Obama Administration and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have advocated.

The bill's advocates were caught flat-footed by the legislative maneuver. "We thought that the issue had gone away," says one science lobbyist about the NSF scandal. "There were rumors last year that it might affect the NSF appropriations. But when that didn't happen we thought people had just forgotten about it." The need for prohibitory language, which does not mention NSF by name, was never brought up during any of the committee's 48 hearings on the legislation, nor was it proposed when the committee waded through 50 amendments before voting out the bill on 28 April.

After the investigation became public, the science committee held NSF's feet to the fire by requiring it to submit monthly progress reports on what steps it was taking to root out the problem. "We told them that we will not tolerate these abuses," says one aide. That reporting stopped a year ago after the committee was satisfied that the problem had been resolved. But NSF's actions didn't wipe the slate clean. Many employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements that affect what punishment may be meted out. Bement also noted that some of the cases were found to involve addictive behavior and that those persons may have received counseling.