A college president speaks up for the FIRST Act

The Flame of the Millennium sculpture at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

The Flame of the Millennium sculpture at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

Yipdw via Wikimedia Commons

James Conwell says he’s not interested in “swimming against the tide.” But the president of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, finds himself in select company: He appears to be the only U.S. academic leader who has offered unequivocal, public support for a controversial bill affecting operations at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In a 17 April letter to a member of Congress from Indiana, Conwell endorsed H.R. 4186, the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act. Conwell’s letter was one of three introduced by Representative Larry Bucshon (R–IN) when the House of Representatives science committee last month took up the bill to reauthorize NSF programs for next year. The committee passed the bill 28 May on a straight party-line vote of 20 to 16, but it is unclear when the full House will take up the measure.

Bucshon chairs the committee’s research panel, and all three letters of support came from Indiana institutions. But only Conwell’s letter explicitly endorses the entire measure, which has been a bone of contention for the scientific community ever since a preliminary draft appeared in April 2013. The other letters, from Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame, thank Bucshon for his interest in research and science education before mentioning particular programs that they support and other sections of the bill that disturb them.

Democrats on the science panel claim to have numbers on their side. They have posted dozens of letters from hundreds of universities, professional societies, and high-tech companies expressing alarm at both the language and tone of the bill, which would set spending targets for various NSF programs as well as guide its day-to-day activities. The letters sharply criticize the bill’s emphasis on a few disciplines and its attack on social science research, take exception to changes in NSF’s grantsmaking processes, and cite other provisions that they warn will weaken the nation’s overall research enterprise.

In an interview with ScienceInsider, Conwell, a mechanical engineer who has been a university professor as well as a senior manager in industry, says he thinks that the current debate within the community misses the larger point. He’s all in for FIRST, he says, because it’s good for his institution and for the country.

“My position is that we want to make sure that there is a reauthorization of NSF. Our school is focused on STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math],” Conwell says. “And this bill puts a focus on STEM. Unfortunately, if that means we need to sacrifice the social sciences to get a bill reauthorized, then I’m for that.”

“I’ve had the chance to work with a whole bunch of countries over the past 20 years,” Conwell continues. “And I think it’s incredibly important for America to educate people who are science, engineering, and technology people. That’s where our competitive edge is going to come from. So the fit between the bill and Rose-Hulman is pretty good, and that’s why I support it.”

Conwell readily admits that Rose-Hulman, a predominantly 4-year college with 2100 undergraduates that sits in Bucshon’s district, is not a research powerhouse. Last year, for example, its faculty received just one NSF research grant, for a project with undergraduates to improve manual breast exams by quantifying the variability in tissue stiffness that they measure, and the school ranked 584th in 2012 among 655 institutions as a recipient of federal research funding. Still, Conwell believes that the “well-rounded engineers” it has trained since its founding in 1874 “are essential to the well-being of the United States.”

Conwell says he decided to back the FIRST Act after the school’s vice president for academic affairs, Phillip Cornwell, conveyed to him a message from Bucshon. Cornwell had appeared before Bucshon’s subcommittee on 9 January at a hearing examining “private sector programs to energize STEM learning,” and Conwell says his vice president “came back and said they’d like a letter of support for FIRST.”

Although he had been aware of the bill, Conwell says he needed “to dig around a little” before coming to a decision. In early April, Conwell received a letter from the chair of the science committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), in which Smith said “I look forward to working with you and other research university leaders to assure federal support for basic research investments through the NSF.” Smith is believed to have sent the identical letter to dozens of university presidents seeking their support. But Conwell says his endorsement of the bill was a response to Bucshon’s request, not Smith’s appeal.

Here are some other things Conwell had to say about the bill during a 6 June telephone interview.

Q: Are you used to swimming against the current? And have you talked to your colleagues about the bill?

A: Let me take exception to the idea that the majority of the scientific community opposes this bill. … I don’t know if I can give you the names of lots of other people [who support FIRST]. … I have talked with other people. But I’m going to keep those conversations to myself.

Q: Many scientists have said that [the FIRST bill’s plan for] setting funding levels for individual directorates ties NSF’s hands and limits its ability to fund the best research. What do you think?

A: The problem with this bill is that it’s been cast in terms of the social sciences versus the STEM sciences. And that’s unfortunate. Every bit of funding from the government comes with some sense of political oversight. I’ve worked in the defense and aerospace industry, and with NASA, and I think that’s just a fact of life at the end of the day.

Q: There’s also been criticism that the bill tries to make NSF research fit a certain mold and that its proposed changes to peer review are ill-advised.

A: I was a faculty member [in mechanical engineering] at Vanderbilt University and then Louisiana State University before going to Grove City College, and I’ve been both a reviewer and a recipient of NSF grants. I recognize that this bill may change the traditional peer-review process at NSF. But if I think we can get the funding out there [through a reauthorization], then it’s far better than not getting the funding out there.

Q: So how would this bill change that process?

A: I’m not sure I have total information on that. But I come back to the fact that we need to focus on funding for science and engineering and math. I’m not looking to swim against the tide or be an iconoclast. I just want to get it reauthorized.

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