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Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX)

Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX)

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

Democrat Assault on FIRST Bill Delays Vote by House Science Panel

Yesterday, the Democrats struck back. Knowing that they couldn’t stop the Republican majority on the U.S. House of Representatives science committee from passing legislation to alter the activities of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in ways they oppose, members of the minority party instead offered more than a dozen amendments designed to highlight what they see as the bill’s serious flaws.

The amendments would have altered language in the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act that the scientific community has sharply criticized since it was first circulated in draft form last spring. Although parts of the bill have been modified since then, several provisions remain sticking points for scientists. They include setting specific spending targets for each NSF research directorate, altering the agency’s vaunted peer-review process, cutting funding for the social and behavioral sciences, imposing new rules to combat scientific misconduct, raising the bar for investigators who have previously received NSF grants, and holding down overall spending at the $7 billion agency.

At the committee markup of the bill yesterday, the panel’s Democrats didn’t hold back in ridiculing those provisions. “Unwise and irresponsible,” “a recipe for disaster,” and “a threat to continued U.S. leadership in science and technology” were some of the phrases they used. In rebuttal, Republicans accused their colleagues across the aisle of having “a lack of connection to the real world,” of being willing to “burden our children and grandchildren with enormous debt,” and of “prefer[ring] NSF’s funding to come without having to answer questions from Congress or the taxpayers.”

There were brief moments of comity. In compromises reached before the legislators met, Republicans agreed to remove a cap on how much NSF could spend on rotators—academics who work at the agency for a few years—and to alter the administrative structure of a committee to oversee science education across the federal government that would be based at NSF. And the panel unanimously accepted a bipartisan amendment offered by representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R–WI) and Zoe Lofgren (D–CA) to bring the bill’s language on providing public access to the results of federally funded research in line with policies already adopted by the Obama administration. Yesterday’s legislative assault on the bill was at least temporarily effective: The committee put off action on 15 amendments, including two by Republicans, after Democrats insisted on recorded votes. This morning, a notice on the committee’s website said the votes have been “postponed until further notice.” That delays a vote at least until next Wednesday, according to a committee aide.

Lobbyists hope that the issues raised during the 6-hour session, which was interrupted twice so members could go to the Capitol for votes on other matters, will delay the expected passage of the bill by the entire House of Representatives. In the meantime, the Democrats used their attacks to expose what they say is the bill’s tone of pervasive mistrust of, and hostility toward, the scientific community.

The panel’s top Democrat, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), said yesterday that the committee’s unwillingness to listen to the objections of academic and high-tech business leaders makes the FIRST Act “an opportunity lost” for Congress to lay out a strong vision for federal research. She entered into the record letters from about 20 academic, research, and high-tech business groups that have expressed concerns or outright opposition to the bill.

The committee’s chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), insisted throughout the markup that the bill does provide such a vision. He said Democrats simply disagree with the Republican approach to improving how NSF operates by making sure that “only high quality research receives taxpayer dollars.”

Despite calling for only a modest boost in NSF’s 2015 budget (the actual budget for every agency is set by a different congressional committee), the bill would also shift money into areas of scientific research “that drive future economic growth,” he says, especially the physical sciences, engineering, and computer science. It would do so by cutting spending on the social and behavioral sciences and holding steady investments in the geosciences.