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The House science committee will take up controversial legislation next week.

FIRST off? The House science committee will take up controversial legislation next week.

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Space, Science and Technology

Republican Plan to Guide NSF Programs Draws Darts, and Befuddlement, From Research Advocates

A bill unveiled this week that would reshape how the U.S. government manages key research and education programs has rekindled tensions between the scientific community and Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the head of the science committee in the House of Representatives. The conflict, which began shortly after Smith became chairman in January, is being waged not just over the words in the legislation but also its overall tone.

The 96-page bill, which the House science committee will discuss at a hearing next Wednesday, is intended to replace the expired 2010 America COMPETES Act. The 2010 law set overall policy and suggested funding levels for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, along with authorizing federal efforts to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. The original COMPETES Act, adopted in 2007, grew out of a high-profile 2005 National Academies’ report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, that called for doubling federal investment in the physical sciences and improving the quality of the nation’s STEM teacher workforce.

Now, lawmakers in both the House and Senate are beginning to consider how to pass legislation that would extend COMPETES. Late last month, Democrats on the House science panel unveiled a proposal that retains the spirit of the original bill. And yesterday, a Senate panel started discussing the issue. But the debate has begun in earnest with Smith’s informal release of a House Republican draft bill called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act.

FIRST has some elements that could foster U.S. innovation, university lobbyists say. They include mechanisms for bolstering public-private partnerships and renewed attention to reforming existing regulations that universities complain are counterproductive.

At the same time, however, science advocates are scratching their heads—and wringing their hands—over a number of provisions. Some reflect a lack of understanding of how academic research is carried out, they say. And they worry that others appear to reflect a profound distrust of—and perhaps even animosity toward—the scientific community and the federal agencies that fund their work.

FIRST is not a wholesale renewal of COMPETES. It does not include DOE’s science programs or Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, for instance, which Smith is addressing in a separate bill. (House Democrats included DOE in their version of the COMPETES reauthorization.) And it does not address a number of programs described in the earlier bills.

The bill also breaks with tradition by not specifying authorized funding levels for any agency or program. Historically, authorization bills set stretch goals that are rarely met by spending panels, but the numbers indicate the relative importance that legislators give to that activity.

A committee aide says those numbers are absent from FIRST because the panel is awaiting the results of negotiations on this year’s federal budget and a long-term spending plan. “This is a policy discussion draft that will enable us to focus on policy issues,” the aide says. “Once there is a bipartisan agreement on a budget, we’ll have a better idea of NSF funding for the legislation.”

Many of the concerns voiced by lobbyists focus on what the bill says about NSF’s system for choosing what to fund. This spring, the science committee circulated a draft bill on NSF peer review that triggered a firestorm of criticism. Although Smith says that the new legislation “is the result of many productive conversations with stakeholders in the R&D community,” its recipe for how NSF should manage peer review appears to be equally unpopular. 

The language seems innocuous at first glance, lobbyists say. For example, it says that every grant should be “in the national interest.” But it also stipulates that the funded research must satisfy “one or more” of six “goals.” And those goals extend beyond the traditional NSF mission of advancing the frontiers of research and developing a scientific workforce to include other desirable outcomes, such as “[i]ncreased economic competitiveness,” “support for the national defense,” and “increased partnerships between academia and industry.”

Such specificity bothers Michael Lubell, head of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Physical Society. “NSF already requires PIs [principal investigators] to describe the broader impacts of their research,” he says. “So why would you list six goals? It suggests that the mission of the foundation should be changed.”

But what really gets Lubell’s goat—and upsets other lobbyists who weren’t willing to speak publicly for fear of offending Smith—is the next paragraph in the bill. It would require NSF to list the name of the employee who decided that the research was worth funding and require a “written justification” of that decision, along with “any other information about the research proposal the [NSF] director considers appropriate.”

“You’re subjecting the program manager to public scrutiny,” Lubell says. “Given the world we live in, who knows what could happen? ... Of course, what’s ironic is that, as their title implies, [program managers] really only manage the process. It’s the reviewers who basically determine the fate of any particular grant proposal.”

Smith declined to discuss the bill. But committee aides responded to questions posed by ScienceInsider. Asked why the bill requires identifying individual program managers, the aide replied: “Taxpayers have a right to know why research projects deserve their support. It will promote public confidence and increase support for research funding if the responsible federal employees provide a concise explanation of why a funded project deserves funding.”

The aide also defended the idea of asking researchers to meet one or more specific goals in their projects. The aide noted that two of the goals—“advancing the health and wealth of the American public and promotion of the progress of science in the United States”—provide plenty of leeway for researchers because they “encompass a very broad range of research and scientific inquiry.” 

Another provision that bothers several science lobbyists would require scientists to certify that anything published as a result of their NSF grant “will be based on an accurate and truthful representation of the research results.” It implies that scientists can’t be trusted to behave ethically, Lubell says, and that scientific misconduct is rampant. According to the committee aide, the language simply reflects the fact that “the NSF inspector general has reported that there is an increasing number of research misconduct” cases and a view that “taxpayer-funded scientists should be held to the highest standards.”

Some sections of the bill simply don’t make sense, lobbyists say, or the meaning is opaque. It would limit grant applicants to five citations of their previous work, they note, instead of leaving it to the discretion of the agency. What’s the point? they ask. And what’s the significance of telling NSF that it can fund scientists for more than 5 years only “if they will be contributing substantial original research”?

Social scientists are suspicious about language that would allow the six research directorates outside of NSF’s social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) division to support work in those areas “if such research is determined to be a higher priority than other research in that directorate’s mission portfolio.” Some lobbyists feel that the language could discourage other directorates from funding work in the social and behavior sciences by erecting a high bar for participation. (They note other directorates already collaborate with SBE, both as part of NSF-wide initiatives and because program managers from two or more directorates may want to share the cost of a particular project.)

A committee aide explains that the language is intended “to encourage each of the NSF directorates to consider funding social-behavioral-economic research within their areas.”

More popular with many lobbyists is a section of the bill that would also halt implementation of the Obama administration’s proposed reorganization of STEM education programs, a plan announced last spring that caught the community by surprise and that most felt was half-baked. Instead, FIRST would create an office within NSF to coordinate STEM education programs across the entire government, something that lobbyists welcome as an important step in weeding out duplicative programs and making those that remain more effective.

The 13 November hearing will be a forum for these and other issues. It will feature two former senior NSF managers who are now top university research administrators along with an advocate for STEM education and a former committee staffer turned science policy guru.