Is the National Science Foundation Taking Enough 'Risks'?

For years, Congress has pushed the National Science Foundation to take more risks. Yesterday, a House of Representatives science panel offered a first-ever definition of what that would mean for the $7 billion research agency and—by extension—the entire U.S. scientific enterprise.

At issue is striking the right balance between the institutional conservatism of NSF reviewers and program managers and the desire of policymakers to fund the next big thing—a crazy idea that will transform science and, eventually, bolster the economy and solve an important societal problem. Although NSF prefers to call it "potentially transformative research," it's usually referred to as "high-risk, high-reward research."

The panel's definition is a mouthful: "Research driven by ideas that have the potential to radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept, or leading to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science or engineering, and that is characterized by its challenge to current understanding or its pathway to new frontiers." And it specifies that NSF should spend "at least 5% of its research budget" on such bold ideas.

Nobody is against fresh approaches to important research problems, of course. But what bothers NSF officials is that legislators, by creating a new type of research, are implicitly saying that the vast majority of research that NSF funds every year is NOT potentially transformative. Basic research is inherently risky, they say, and it's impossible to predict what will flow from any particular piece of basic research. Their favorite example is the birth of Google out of a bread-and-butter research grant from NSF's computer science directorate. NSF officials are hoping that legislators will allow them to grandfather in some existing projects under the new language.

The bill, a 5-year reauthorization of NSF programs, also sets spending levels that are even more generous than what the Obama Administration has projected—$8.2 billion rather than $7.4 billion for FY 2011, rising above $10 billion in 2014, 2 years sooner than under the president's timetable. It's one of three pieces in a planned update of the 2007 America COMPETES Act that covers NSF, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The NSF piece was marked up yesterday by the research subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, which is scheduled to take up the entire COMPETES bill on 28 April.