Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) in 2015

NASA/Joel Kowsky

Reporter’s notebook: House budget hearing shows science chairman’s impact on NSF peer review

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) has repeatedly criticized the peer-review process at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, since becoming chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’s science committee in 2013. It was no surprise, then, that during a hearing yesterday on NSF’s 2019 budget request he railed against a handful of grants from NSF’s $6 billion research portfolio as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

What was surprising is that the agency’s friends—both the NSF officials who testified and Democratic legislators who have staunchly defended the agency’s grantmaking practices—appear to have accepted Smith’s premise that NSF has lost sight of its obligation to fund research “in the national interest” and agree that Congress needs to keep NSF on a short leash.

“I would be remiss, Chairman Smith, if I didn’t thank you for holding us to the highest standards for transparency and accountability,” Maria Zuber, chair of the National Science Board, NSF’s oversight body, told Smith in her opening statement.

NSF Director France Córdova later tried to appease Smith after he ridiculed a $450,000 grant exploring the interaction of culture and language as a study of “why there is no single English world for light blue.” Starting this month, Córdova noted, the online description of every NSF award includes a sentence that the research “reflects NSF’s statutory mission.” The language, she told Smith, “is meant to be a pause for every division director to ask whether the research fulfills national needs.”

Smith was not satisfied. “I just looked at your justification of light blue,” he said about the 2012 grant to researchers at The Ohio State University in Columbus, “and if there’s anything in it about national interest, let me know. I did not see it.”

Smith has long argued that NSF should be spending more money on computing and the physical sciences, fields in which other countries are threatening U.S. global leadership and that have direct applications to military and economic security. The social and behavioral sciences can’t make that claim, he says, and given NSF’s flat budget—President Donald Trump requested $32 million less than the $7.5 billion the agency received last year—they should be getting less money.

Córdova and Zuber, who is also vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, disagreed, citing historical examples of ways social science research helped boost the economy and strengthen national defense. Although Trump’s 2019 request would again cut funding for the social and behavioral sciences directorate, Córdova said scientists in those fields will also have a chance to participate in six new cross-disciplinary initiatives, dubbed NSF’s “Big Ideas.” (It won’t be known until later this year, at the earliest, whether Congress will approve the proposed cut.)

Another pair of eyes

Even so, Smith’s persistent criticism seems to have changed the nature of the conversation about how NSF does business. That became clear when Representative Don Beyer (D–VA), one of the most vocal defenders of the agency’s peer-review practices, suggested a novel way to make sure that all NSF grants were up to snuff.

“What if a nonpartisan, nonideological person looked at every grant one last time” before it was announced, he asked Córdova. “It would be one more scientific eye [on the research] before it goes out to the public.”

Beyer acknowledged he was treading on thin ice, calling his suggestion “a dangerous idea.” One staffer described it as a “cringe-worthy” moment for those who have long defended NSF’s current practices, and Beyer declined a request to flesh out what he had in mind.

Córdova didn’t flinch. “I think we have really improved our reliability and brought cognizance to the staff,” she said about the agency’s current vetting practices. “But that’s an interesting idea.”

NSF has tested a variant of what Beyers suggested, according to Joan Ferrini-Mundy, NSF’s chief operating officer. Speaking with ScienceInsider a day after she testified at the hearing, Ferrini-Mundy mentioned a pilot study in which NSF administrative staff were asked to read the abstracts “to see if the nontechnical descriptions are clear and compelling.”

During the same interview, Córdova said she “likes the spirit of [Beyer’s] remarks to broaden the number of eyes.” But she emphasized that such after-the-fact input doesn’t reduce the need for subject matter experts who can apply the two criteria—intellectual merit and broader impacts—that NSF uses to assess the quality of every proposal.

Women rule

Smith left halfway through the hearing, handing over the gavel to Representative Barbara Comstock (R–VA), who chairs the committee’s panel on research. Her arrival on the dais created another noteworthy tableau: an entirely female cast of leading characters.

All three witnesses—Córdova, Zuber, and Ferrini-Mundy—were women with science Ph.Ds. And both the acting chair, Comstock, and the top Democrat, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D–CA), were women as well. (Lofgren sat in for the committee’s ranking Democrat, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, who left after delivering her opening statement.) For good measure, the professional staff directors for both parties, who typically sit next to the lawmakers, were also women.

Part of the unusual gender alignment was not lost on Comstock, a leading congressional figure in efforts to stamp out sexual harassment. “We need to look at the long-term economic impact of sexual harassment in science” as well as on the personal harm that it causes, she said, noting that women who leave science because of harassment often don’t return. “And since we are blessed with three women panelists,” she said, “I’d like to hear your thoughts on what can be done.”