Pressure Builds on Congress to Kill NSF Bill

Big chill. Three former directors of the U.S. National Science Foundation, (from left) Neal Lane, Rita Colwell, and Arden Bement, say the proposed legislation would have a "chilling" effect on NSF grant-making.

National Science Foundation

Several former top officials at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the chairs of its oversight body yesterday wrote to Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) urging him to withdraw a bill proposing changes to grant-making at the agency.

In one of two 8 May letters to Smith, the former officials say that the draft legislation, entitled "The High-Quality Research Act," "will have a chilling and detrimental impact on the merit-based review process." Smith, who is chair of the House of Representatives science committee, has said that the legislation is intended to weed out projects not worthy of federal support. But the letter writers say that "rather than improving the quality of research, [the changes] would do just the opposite."

That letter is signed by three previous NSF directors—Neal Lane, Rita Colwell, and Arden Bement—and three past chairs of the National Science Board, NSF's presidentially appointed oversight body. The second letter, from 18 scientists who once headed individual research directorates at the agency, also argues that many of NSF's most spectacular successes would not have qualified for funding under the terms of the legislation.

"It's just an awful piece of legislation," says Michael Turner, former head of the math and physical sciences program at NSF and incoming president of the American Physical Society. "And we're hoping that it is never introduced."

Asked about the status of his draft bill, Smith issued a statement calling it "a starting point to determine how the NSF grant process can be improved. And I welcome the input of individuals involved in that process." According to Smith, "we agree that the peer review process should remain intact, and that basic research should be supported. … Priorities have to be set so that taxpayer funded grants go to the highest quality research possible."