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Buck stops here. President Harry Truman and Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chair of the House science committee.

Buck stops here. President Harry Truman and Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chair of the House science committee.

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

Harry Truman Agreed With Me, Says Chairman of House Science Panel

In the latest salvo in a yearlong battle, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) has suggested that a long-dead Democratic president would have backed his legislative proposal to change the grantsmaking process at the National Science Foundation (NSF). But President Harry Truman didn’t address the issue that Smith is raising when he vetoed a bill to create the foundation, says the agency’s historian.

Yesterday, presidential science adviser John Holdren publicly criticized Smith’s proposals, which the lawmaker argues would “ensure transparency and accountability” at the $7 billion agency. “I don’t think we should be trying to fix something that isn’t broken,” Holdren said.

Today, Smith responded to Holdren’s remarks in a statement. “What is broken is NSF’s refusal to provide Congress and American taxpayers with basic information about how NSF-funded grants are in the national interest,” Smith stated, referencing language in his Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act. It would require the NSF director to certify that every grant had the promise of fostering economic growth, improving public health, or safeguarding the nation.

Smith then stated: “President Harry Truman vetoed the first NSF-enabling legislation because he concluded it didn’t protect taxpayers’ right to know about how the agency would spend their money.”

Smith is referring to Truman’s 1947 veto of a bill establishing NSF. (In 1950, Truman signed a reworked bill that was more to his liking.)

But Truman’s veto message was based on another principle entirely, says NSF historian Marc Rothenberg. “I have seen no evidence that President Truman had ever raised the issue of the taxpayers’ right to know in his discussions with scientists or members of Congress regarding NSF legislation,” according to Rothenberg. “His concern was the authority the proposed legislation would give the National Science Board to name the director.”

The vetoed bill, Rothenberg notes, gave that hiring authority to an executive committee of a part-time NSF board, comprised of eminent scientists and academic leaders selected by the White House. Truman objected to that setup, saying in his August 1947 veto message that it would prevent the president from “discharging his constitutional responsibility” to manage the government. That power, Truman explained, would instead be handed over to “a group of individuals who would be essentially private citizens.” In his memoirs, Truman wrote that “[s]ometimes the Congress makes an effort to rob the President of his appointive powers, I would never stand for it.” 

But Smith takes away a different message from Truman’s veto. “President Truman’s veto statement echoed the need for public accountability at NSF,” explained a Smith aide in a follow-up comment to ScienceInsider.

None of Smith’s critics disagree with the importance of transparency and accountability. But NSF officials say they have already taken several administrative steps to address his concerns. And NSF’s oversight board said last week that the FIRST Act “would significantly impede NSF’s flexibility to deploy its funds” by imposing limits on the types of research that could be funded, as well as by tinkering with the process by which those grants are awarded.

Holdren cited those concerns in his comments yesterday, but Smith remains unconvinced. “It’s unfortunate that the President’s Science Advisor would rather provide NSF with a blank check than set basic standards of transparency,” Smith stated. “The NSF’s cornerstone remains solid, but its boarded up windows are what need repair.”