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NSF's Science Board Criticizes Bill to Alter Agency's Programs

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National Science Board

The presidentially appointed oversight body to the National Science Foundation (NSF) has taken the unprecedented step of publicly criticizing pending legislation that it feels would be harmful to the $7 billion research agency.

The stance taken by the National Science Board (NSB), detailed in a 5-paragraph statement released today, escalates a yearlong battle between the scientific community and Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chair of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. Smith’s bill (H.R. 4186) to reauthorize NSF programs “impose[s] significant new burdens on scientists that would not be offset by gains to the nation,” the board declares. “We are concerned that the proposed new legislative requirements might discourage visionary proposals or transformative science at a time when advancing the decades-long U.S. leadership in science and technology is a top priority.”

Those requirements include telling NSF how to vet grant proposals under its so-called merit review process. Smith has repeatedly highlighted specific grants that he feels are frivolous or wasteful and has said the legislation, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act, is designed to make NSF more accountable and to make its grantsmaking process more transparent.

Science board members could not recall another instance in which the board spoke out on pending legislation, although in 1998 it was asked by Congress to comment on an NSF reauthorization bill. But “we feel that the health and prosperity of the U.S. scientific enterprise is part of our responsibility, and this is a statement of our belief,” explains Dan Arvizu, the board’s chair and director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

In particular, NSB members feel that the bill’s language “is just too constraining,” says Kelvin Droegemeier, the board’s vice chair and vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma. “There are lots of things that could be problematic for peer review and that could slow things down,” he tells ScienceInsider. The statement notes that NSF and the board “are implementing new processes that will increase both transparency and accountability. We therefore do not see a need to impose new, more inflexible, legislated requirements on NSF and our science and engineering communities.”

Smith responded to a request from ScienceInsider with an e-mail that questions the sincerity of NSF’s attempts to address his concerns. “After a year of the National Science Foundation (NSF) resisting calls for more public accountability, the agency’s last-minute announcement of a new internal policy is too little too late,” Smith writes. “The internal policy would continue to allow the NSF to evade responsibility for their decisions to fund questionable grants. The NSF wants to be the only federal agency to get a blank check signed by taxpayers, without having to justify how the money is spent.”

FIRST is an authorization bill, meaning it only recommends spending levels. (Congress follows a parallel process, using its appropriations committees, to determine actual yearly budgets for every agency.) And the science board objects to the fact that the bill suggests specific funding levels for each of NSF’s research directorates.

That level of detail is new for NSF reauthorization bills, which have previously proposed an overall amount for spending on research. The differentiation is seen as a way for the science committee to cut funding for the social and behavioral sciences, disciplines that many committee Republicans have said are less important to the nation than research in the physical sciences and engineering.

“[T]he bill’s specification of budget allocations to each NSF directorate would significantly impede NSF’s flexibility to deploy its funds to support the best ideas,” according to the board’s statement. Droegemeier fleshed out the board’s concern by noting that “the scientific community really determines our priorities by presenting us with the most exciting research opportunities, and anything that reduces that flexibility would not be wise.”

Smith disagrees, arguing that Congress has a responsibility to make sure that tax dollars are spent most effectively. “The NSF’s new internal policy omits any commitment to make awards that are in the ‘national interest,’ a standard that should guide taxpayer-funded grants,” he writes. “Under the Obama administration there has been a shift in priorities from engineering and the physical sciences to more taxpayer-funded social, behavioral and economic (SBE) research. Basic research in the physical sciences drives economic growth, produces new technologies and creates jobs. The Committee’s support for NSF’s important work is reflected in the fact that the FIRST Act authorizes more funding than the President’s budget request.  But to regain America’s scientific edge the Committee will adjust priorities for taxpayer-supported research.”

The FIRST bill was approved by the science committee’s research panel on 13 March and is expected to be adopted by the full committee sometime in May. Droegemeier said the board wanted to express its views before the committee met. At the same time, the bill will need to be passed by the House and the Senate—which has yet to draft its own version of an NSF reauthorization bill—before it becomes law.

Although the NSF board and Smith are at loggerheads on this issue, they are not strangers; Smith attended a private session of the board last year and has talked with some of its officers. And although the science committee doesn’t set NSF’s budget, Droegemeier was careful to show deference to a legislator with considerable clout over NSF’s activities.

“We appreciate his passion for science,” Droegemeier says. “He absolutely gets it. And we value our communication with him.” But Droegemeier said that “it’s hard to get into the head of an individual legislator. There are a lot of things about the legislative process we don’t understand.”