Congress has reached a truce—and possibly a lasting settlement—in the fiercely partisan 3-year war between Republican leaders in the House of Representatives and the scientific community over how the National Science Foundation (NSF) should operate. The terms of the agreement, between House and Senate negotiators, may seem like minor changes. But the compromise, which the Senate could adopt as early as this week, resolves differences over how NSF should conduct peer review and manage research in ways that the agency thinks it can live with.
The battleground is a reauthorization of the 2010 America COMPETES Act, which sets out policies governing NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and federal programs on innovation, manufacturing, and science and math education. Reauthorization bills don’t fund an agency, but they provide important policy guidance.
Since 2013, the House of Representatives has adopted a succession of bills containing language that scientific leaders argued would have restricted NSF’s ability to support the best research. The strategy, coordinated by Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairman of the House science committee, over the objections of committee Democrats, included favoring some disciplines over others and linking basic research projects more tightly to improvements in health, the economy, and national security. Republicans said they were simply trying to ensure that every NSF grant serves “the national interest.” But many scientists interpreted that language to mean NSF should tilt toward funding applied research with obvious payoffs.