Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) at the U.S. Capitol in 2014.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

The sequel: Influential House member plans to rekindle debate over NSF policies

The last bill that President Barack Obama signed before leaving office ended a 4-year battle over the future of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a way that largely preserved current practices at the $7.5 billion research agency.

Or so most scientists thought. They had vigorously fought bill language drafted by Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chair of the House of Representatives science committee, that would have altered NSF’s well-regarded system of peer review and its commitment to a balanced research portfolio. And Smith had generally acceded to his Senate counterparts in negotiating the final version of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA), enacted on 6 January.

But last week Smith made clear at a hearing of the science committee that he’s gearing up for a new fight. And his comments suggest he’s intent on covering much of the same ground, starting with his view that NSF’s charge to support research “in the national interest” means it should fund less social science and environmental research.

Smith has declined more than two dozen interview requests from ScienceInsider to discuss his views on NSF since he became chairman of the science committee in 2013, so his public comments and actions are open to interpretation. But he has proposed other bills that would have capped NSF’s spending on social and environmental research, and favored the four other NSF research directorates covering biology, math and physical sciences, computer sciences, and engineering. He also has said repeatedly that NSF’s limited resources should be put to the best use in keeping Americans prosperous and safe.

And last Friday Smith sent a letter to the chair of the House Budget Committee pledging that the science committee would require that the four favored directorates must receive 70% of NSF’s research dollars. The committee also plans to revive its attempt to specify funding by directorate, Smith told the budget committee, something that NSF officials say would tie their hands. 

House Democrats say there is no need for a new bill, however, and the Senate appears to have little appetite for a do-over. Moreover, scientific organizations are sure to object strenuously to any legislation that reopens debate on NSF’s core principles and practices.

At the same time, the battle lines have yet to form over another little-discussed provision that Smith agreed to drop from the AICA but that now seems likely to return. It would have required NSF to publicly disclose the names of grantees that the agency finds guilty of scientific misconduct. The agency currently doesn’t do that (because of federal privacy laws, it says), and the AICA requires NSF only to notify other federal agencies of each finding of misconduct. But mandating public disclosures would bring NSF’s practices more in line with another federal agency that handles misconduct allegations involving the government’s much larger investment in biomedical research.

Déjà vu at hearing

The 9 March hearing was billed as “overview and oversight” of NSF programs by the science committee’s research panel. It featured testimony from NSF’s director, France Córdova, and its inspector general, Allison Lerner, who leads an independent watchdog office that investigates all manner of waste, fraud, and abuse of federal funds at NSF.

Smith made clear in his opening statement that everything NSF does is back on the table. “Our challenge this year is to set funding priorities that will ensure America remains a leader in the global marketplace of ideas and products while also recognizing budgetary limits,” he said. “A full reauthorization [bill for NSF] … will allow us to rebalance priorities.”  

Smith wasted no time tearing the scab off the wounds from the protracted debate over the AICA. “Thank you for implementing the ‘national interest’ standard,” he said in his first question to Córdova, referring to his controversial, but ultimately unsuccessful, bid to require NSF to articulate how every grant it awards contributes to “the national interest.” NSF saw Smith’s language, at best, as a waste of time; at worst, it was a slap in the face.

At last week’s hearing, Smith was specifically referring to a previous hearing at which Córdova appeared to accede to Smith’s argument that NSF’s current practices were flawed and agree with his definition of the national interest. So his question proceeded from that assumption. “How do you plan to enforce it on a grant-by-grant basis?” Smith asked.

The new AICA allows the public abstracts of each grant to serve that purpose, Córdova answered. Those abstracts specify the “broader impacts” of the research being conducted, she noted.

Smith wasn’t deterred. “How many grants meet the standard and how many don’t?” he asked the director. The obvious answer was that all do, by definition, or NSF would not be funding the research. But Córdova swung and missed, launching into a long explanation of how the agency’s merit review system works.

Naming names

Smith’s questions also seemed to be laying the groundwork for bringing back the idea of requiring NSF to publicly disclose the names of grantees who commit misconduct, along with details of the case. Smith has asserted repeatedly over the years that a public shaming would reduce the incidence of misconduct and, thus, protect tax dollars.

NSF officials think that’s a bad idea. They insist the agency already takes misconduct very seriously and that disclosure of guilty parties would violate federal privacy laws.

The typical NSF finding of misconduct is kept strictly confidential. Only in the small fraction of cases in which scientists are debarred—that is, prohibited from receiving federal funding for a specified period—are the names disclosed. Even then, the names appear only on an obscure federal website, called the System of Awards Management (sam.gov). Its purpose is to prevent people who have committed all types of fraud from receiving any government award during their debarment. The website offers no details of the crime.

In contrast, the federal agency that investigates and punishes misconduct by biomedical researchers, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) within the Department of Health and Human Services, routinely publishes the names of the guilty parties and details of their cases.

Lerner, the NSF inspector general, agrees that the agency’s practices on disclosure are inconsistent and believes naming miscreants serves a useful purpose. “The information [for debarred individuals] is out there, so it seems silly not to be consistent,” she says.

Misconduct missteps?

At the hearing, Smith gently quizzed Córdova and Lerner about how NSF deals with allegations of misconduct and the consequences for scientists found guilty. “What are you doing to correct incidents of misconduct, and what are the sanctions?” he asked.

This time Córdova fielded the question cleanly. “We take these allegations very seriously,” she replied, adding that, as a former university president, she can attest that the institutions where the scientists work are likewise committed to the responsible conduct of research. The sanctions, she noted, can range from excluding a researcher from serving on a review panel to a multiyear debarment. “It’s very important that the punishment fit the crime,” Córdova said. “Leaving off quote marks is quite different than falsifying data.”

Federal officials responsible for rooting out misconduct must walk a fine line with congressional overseers in describing their agency’s efforts. Officials look like they’re ignoring the problem if they say misconduct is rare. But a growing caseload leaves them vulnerable to questions about why they aren’t doing a better job of preventing its occurrence in the first place.

Despite their considerable experience testifying before Congress, both Córdova and Lerner stumbled in answering queries from committee members about the incidence of misconduct by NSF-funded scientists. Lerner, for example, referred in her testimony to 175 findings of misconduct over the past 4 years, a number that Republicans on the committee saw as confirmation of their concerns about shoddy oversight. By the next day, however, she had corrected herself. The number of cases is actually 75, she confessed to committee staff.

Her statement citing “a significant rise [in recent years] in the number of substantive allegations” of misconduct is also open to question. Asked later for data to support that assertion, Lerner cited a doubling of alleged data fabrication and falsification by graduate students and postdocs in the last 5 years compared with a 6-year period ending in 2010. A more complete tally of all substantive allegations against all scientists will appear in the office’s next report due out this spring, she said, adding that such tallies are difficult to compile.

In the meantime, however, data provided last summer to ScienceInsider by her office showed the total number of allegations received by NSF has actually dropped by half in recent years, from a 2008 peak of 115 to 55 in 2015. Lerner noted that many of those allegations include plagiarism, which many academics consider to be a lesser offense than tampering with data.

Córdova’s misstep involved the reasons behind any changes in those numbers. Asked by Representative Don Beyer (D–VA) about the alleged increase, Córdova blamed it on “better analytical tools, like with cancer detection.” She went on, “It’s not that there are more cases, but that we’re getting better at detecting it.” However, she offered no evidence to support that claim.

Speaking after the hearing, Lerner questioned whether there was a single factor at work. She also argued that greater community awareness of the problem has translated into more people being willing to make an allegation. And some experts positing an upward trend blame the ever-stiffer competition for funding and academic jobs, saying it is causing more researchers to cut corners.

ORI versus NSF

Smith’s push for public disclosure also raises the question of why NSF and ORI differ in their practices. The answer, according to NSF General Counsel Lawrence Rudolph in Arlington, Virginia, is how each agency levies sanctions.

In ORI’s case, he says, the settlements are voluntary agreements with individuals that include a scientist’s waiver of their right to privacy. In contrast, Rudolph notes, NSF almost never strikes such voluntary agreements. Instead, it informs the scientist of NSF’s intent to impose sanctions; although the decision can be appealed, NSF invariably rejects the appeal. Still, the scientist’s name remains under the protection of federal privacy laws.

And then there’s this wrinkle. For many years the final “closeout” investigative report from the inspector general’s office would include the name of the guilty party if they were debarred. (Most scientists receive lesser offenses and their names were erased in these reports.) But NSF stopped that practice earlier this decade after officials decided it may violate federal privacy laws.

Lerner says she would like to reinstate that naming practice for debarred scientists. But doing so would require a different method of recordkeeping that must be approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget. “That’s a long process,” she explained, requiring notices and public comment. “It’s on my to-do list, but I don’t know when it will happen.” The current freeze on proposing new regulations imposed by the new administration poses another complication, she notes.

The science committee has scheduled a second NSF hearing for 21 March. In addition to the chair of the National Science Board, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight body, and the agency’s acting chief operating officer, the committee has invited outside scientists to discuss community efforts to increase the reproducibility of research results.

Updated, 3/15/2017, 9:22 a.m.: This story has been updated to include information about a letter outlining the House science panel's plans for NSF legislation that it sent to the House Budget Committee.