Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives today laid out their arguments for keeping the National Science Foundation (NSF) on a short leash. It was the latest salvo in a yearlong battle with Democrats over the nature of federal support for basic research.
The setting was a markup of controversial legislation, H.R. 4186, by the research panel of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The bill, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act, would reauthorize research and education programs at NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology and provide greater oversight of federal efforts in science education. Science lobbyists and House Democrats have complained sharply about proposed changes to NSF’s peer-review process and a 40% reduction in authorized funding levels for the agency’s social science research programs in the bill. They also object to language relating to public access to government-funded research and cracking down on scientific misconduct.
But Republicans largely dismissed those and other concerns in approving the bill on a straight party-line vote. In the course of the markup, the Republican majority rejected two Democratic amendments, one of which would have restored current funding levels for the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences and for the geosciences and the second given NSF more flexibility to allocate funding among its six research directorates. (The panel did accept a previously negotiated deal with Representative Dan Lipinski [D-IL], the top Democrat on the research panel, to restore almost half of the cuts to the social sciences.) The full science committee is expected to take up the legislation in early April.
The real significance of today’s action, however, lay not in the actual votes. Rather, the 90-minute business meeting gave the panel’s chair, Representative Larry Bucshon (R-IN), a chance to explain why he and other Republicans think some NSF-supported disciplines are more important than others and why NSF needs to do a better job of spending tax dollars wisely.
In drafting the bill, Bucshon said, “we have increased investments in research in the natural and physical sciences that are critical for stimulating new technologies, innovation, and economic growth. Those are our priorities.” Earlier in the hearing, he had explained that his opposition to the Democratic push for a rejuggling of accounts was based on his belief that the social and behavioral sciences and the geosciences “are areas for which the United States already has a wide lead among nations.”
The stakes are high, according to Bucshon. “Our long-standing global leadership in science and technology is threatened, I think we would all agree,” he asserted. “Recent reports show that the United States is in danger of falling behind in technical R&D … and that China may overtake us in less than 10 years. … If we are complacent, we will lose that competition, and our children and their children will have less.”
Democrats on the panel have a different perspective of that global competition. The best way to remain preeminent, argued Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), is to maintain support for the full spectrum of basic research funded by NSF.
“NSF is mandated to promote the progress of science, to advance the national welfare, and secure the national defense,” she noted, “and SBE and the geosciences are integral to each of these goals. To single them out for cuts in funding because of apparent concern about possible findings is unwarranted and counter to good policy and effective research. Setting disciplines against each other also runs counter to the principles in the COMPETES Act, and the need to maintain a strong research basis across all areas of science.”
Lofgren and other Democrats believe that their Republican colleagues have another, baser reason for targeting certain disciplines. “For some reason, the majority seems to have a political vendetta against these important fields of research,” she asserted. “While research in the social and behavioral and geosciences areas may produce unexpected, controversial, or in some areas even unwanted findings, that’s no reason to single them out for disruptive and costly funding cuts.”
The proposed changes to NSF’s peer-review practices, which generated a firestorm last spring among White House officials, scientists, and their professional organizations, received scant attention at today’s markup. Democrats make it clear they still don’t like the provision that NSF needs to explain how each grant “is worthy of federal funding” by demonstrating its contribution to economic growth or national defense. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, described the language as “solutions in search of problems, in some cases with likely unintended consequences.”
But Lipinski told ScienceInsider after the hearing that he and his Democratic colleagues feel that the current bill is a big improvement over the earlier draft. He says it tamps down expectations that every research grant must pay off in short-term, tangible societal benefits. He also believes that its provisions requiring NSF to explain why a particular project was funded are less onerous.
“The biggest issue has been changing the way NSF evaluated and processed grant proposals,” he says. “And what we have in there now may be more work for NSF, but I don’t think it fundamentally changes how NSF operates. I worked very hard with Mr. [Lamar] Smith [(R-TX), chairman of the full committee] on this issue, and I think we’ve got it to a place we can live with.”