Displeased. White House science adviser John Holdren, shown at a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday, opposes a bill that he says would weaken the National Science Foundation.

Displeased. White House science adviser John Holdren, shown at a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday, opposes a bill that he says would weaken the National Science Foundation.

U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations

White House Science Adviser Criticizes FIRST Act

Pending legislation to alter the grantmaking process at the National Science Foundation (NSF) “would have an extraordinarily unfortunate effect” on the $7 billion research agency, presidential science adviser John Holdren said today.

Holdren’s comments, made at the annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy (AAAS publishes ScienceInsider), are the first public reaction from the White House to the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act, a 2-year reauthorization of NSF programs that is expected to be approved this month by the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Holdren’s words are consistent with the view of many academic leaders that the bill is part of a broader attack by congressional Republicans on federally funded science.

“I think that NSF’s peer-review process has proven itself over the years in a manner that has made it the envy of the world,” Holdren told attendees at the AAAS forum in Washington, D.C. “Everybody else is trying to mimic the success NSF has had from funding research. I don’t think we should be trying to fix something that isn’t broken.”

The debate over NSF’s future was joined last spring when community leaders attacked an earlier version of FIRST drafted by the chair of the science committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX). They saw it as pushing NSF in the direction of supporting applied research. Speaking at last year’s AAAS forum, Holdren accused Smith of “adding Congress as reviewers” of NSF grant proposals. Smith said then he was simply “adding a layer of accountability” to ensure that NSF was funding research with the greatest possible chance of fostering economic development, national security, and improving the nation’s health.

Smith has reiterated that argument over the past 12 months. In a 9 April letter to a university president, for example, he emphasized that “the FIRST Act does not touch NSF’s merit review process.”

But Smith appears to have made little headway with the community. Last week, NSF’s oversight body, the presidentially appointed National Science Board, declared that the FIRST bill “would compromise NSF’s ability” to carry out its mission to fund the best basic research across all areas of science and engineering.   

In his keynote address, Holdren said “it is critical that the independence and integrity of NSF’s peer-review grantmaking process be protected and preserved. … Those primary focuses of NSF [should] not be refashioned now, after nearly 65 years of success, to fit political preferences of the moment.”

After his talk, he fleshed out those comments in response to a question from the audience.

“I’m concerned with a number of aspects of the FIRST Act,” he explained. “First of all, it appears aimed at narrowing the focus of NSF-funded research to domains that are applied to various national interests other than simply advancing the progress of science. [I also disagree with] the notion that the NSF director should have to justify to Congress in advance of funding the relationship between the grant and an outcome that would benefit public health or the economy or national security.”

He also defended NSF against attacks from Smith and other congressional Republicans relating to individual grants. “The FIRST Act would have an extraordinarily unfortunate effect on an agency that is our broadest funder of basic research across all the scientific and engineering disciplines, including the social and behavioral sciences, which sometimes come in for particular criticism from members of Congress when they read the title of a grant that seems to them frivolous and a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

Updated 2 May 2014, 8:31am: The headline and text have been revised to clarify that Holdren did not explicitly call on Congress to reject the FIRST bill, and that his comments were the White House's first public reaction to the bill, but not its "official" position on the legislation.