Plant scientist Selena Ahmed has spent nearly a decade studying tea production in southwestern China. Representative Matt Salmon (R–AZ) speaks fluent Mandarin and has championed the cause of Chinese political dissidents.
But despite their shared interest in the world’s most populous nation, the Arizona legislator is no fan of Ahmed’s work. In fact, Salmon doesn’t think that the National Science Foundation (NSF) should be funding her research on tea as a model system for understanding how a warming climate is putting stress on specialty crops and the impact of those changes on farmers.
Late last month, the U.S. House of Representatives agreed. By voice vote the legislators passed an amendment to a NSF funding bill for 2015 that says the agency can’t spend any money next year on her project, part of a collaboration with former colleagues at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, where Ahmed did a postdoc.
Fortunately for Ahmed, now an assistant professor in sustainable food systems at Montana State University, Bozeman, the amendment won’t keep her from doing her fieldwork. That’s because NSF has funded all the research up front, in what’s called a standard grant. The 3-year, $931,000 grant was one of 21 projects awarded last fall as part of an ongoing NSF program on the dynamics of coupled natural and human systems.
Salmon says he doesn’t get why NSF is spending money to study, in effect, the price of tea in China. “I find it deeply troubling that while our country is facing fiscal challenges of gigantic proportions … that programs such as this are being funded on the back of the American taxpayer,” he said in offering his amendment on 29 May. “While I certainly understand the value of predicting agricultural trends for tea, I believe that that is a task that ought to be left to the private sector, the ones that benefit from this kind of information.”
Researchers say he’s missing the point of the work, which is part of an ongoing NSF initiative on science, engineering, and education for sustainability. The initiative is trying to better understand how environmental changes affect people’s lives and their response to those changes, according to NSF officials. Ahmed is looking specifically at how changes in the composition of the tea being grown could affect its marketability and, thus, the farmers’ livelihoods.
“People buy and drink tea for certain qualities. If those qualities are not there, then they may not buy the tea,” co-principal investigator Colin Orians of Tufts explained earlier this year. “What we see happening to tea could be a harbinger of what could happen to agriculture in general.”
Salmon’s office declined repeated requests from ScienceInsider to explain why he singled out the China project and what he hopes to accomplish, given that the research does not require additional funding. The Senate’s version of the same spending bill was approved by the Appropriations Committee last week without any such language, although amendments are expected when the bill goes to the floor next month. The two bills must then be reconciled, most likely not until after the November elections, before a final version can be sent to the president.
In the meantime, the scientists are mounting a vocal defense of their work. “I am disappointed when politicians try to do NSF's business,” Orians says. “I am proud of our project.” Kimberly Thurler, director of public relations at Tufts, says “we urge Congress to reject the Salmon amendment in conference and respect the NSF peer-review process.”
Ahmed has written to her home-state legislator, Senator Jon Tester (D–MT), explaining the research and asking him to oppose any attacks from colleagues. And the extensive Chinese contacts she has made over the years are paying off in this latest round of research, she says, which is “proceeding smoothly and on schedule. … I believe this work is the responsibility of scientists in America's colleges and universities which the NSF supports.”