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Debate. The U.S. House of Representatives during last week's debate on a spending bill that funds the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

Debate. The U.S. House of Representatives during last week's debate on a spending bill that funds the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

U.S. House of Representatives

Big Battle Over 15 Little Words

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives last week to amend a 2015 spending bill covering the National Science Foundation (NSF). Smith has long complained about NSF’s “frivolous” grants in the social sciences. And now, as chair of the House science committee, he stood before his colleagues to propose “a small but important step … to assure that NSF-funded research is, in fact, in the national interest.”

Smith said his 15-word amendment, co-authored by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R–VA), would cancel a 6%, $15.3 million increase requested by the Obama administration for NSF’s social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) directorate and move the money into four other NSF research directorates that Smith feels are more deserving. The reshuffling of funds will “encourage the NSF to apply higher standards when awarding its grants,” Smith argued during a brief debate on 29 May on his amendment. By a narrow margin of 208 to 201, the House agreed with him.

The fate of the House spending bill—which appropriates $51.2 billion across several agencies—is uncertain. The Senate must pass its own version and then reconcile the differences in a conference that probably won’t happen until after the November elections.

In the meantime, however, two aspects of Smith’s legislative victory are getting close inspection. First, federal budget watchers say the amendment would not necessarily alter how NSF spends its money, much less shift funds from SBE into the other directorates, as he has claimed. (More on that in a minute.) Second, the administration has not asked, as part of a request that would hold flat NSF’s overall research budget next year, to spend 6% more on the type of research that so annoys Smith. Rather, the additional funds would go largely to improve an NSF survey that, among other things, measures how well U.S.-trained scientists and engineers are using their Ph.D. degrees to foster innovation. It’s a project that appears to satisfy Smith’s definition of activities “in the national interest.”

An imaginary transfer

So what’s going on? The amendment isn’t exactly a ruse. But it’s hard to see how it’s the “important step” in bringing NSF to heel that Smith has claimed.

Let’s start with the language itself. The syntax is obscure even by Washington standards: “Page 69, line 4, after the dollar amount insert (reduced by $15,350,000) (increased by $15,350,000).” The page and line references are to NSF’s research and related activities account, which the House has funded at nearly $6 billion. The parentheticals literally subtract and then add back the same amount to that budget line. So the amendment does “not change anything in the bill,” says a veteran House staffer familiar with the workings of the Appropriations Committee. And there’s no specific mention of social science or shifting funds.

But by wording his amendment that way, the staffer says Smith got an opportunity to air his concerns about NSF spending on the House floor. An amendment specifying a cut and shift would likely have been ruled out of order, because such fine details are not spelled out in the spending bill. The amendment also gave Smith a chance to reach out to House members who will be negotiating the final bill in a conference committee with the U.S. Senate and seek their commitment to trimming social science research at NSF.

Indeed, “the amendment’s sponsors … made this intent [to transfer funds] explicit during floor debate,” says an aide on Smith’s House science committee. The aide is referring to an exchange between Smith and Representative Frank Wolf (R–VA), the chairman of the House appropriations subpanel that oversees NSF. The aide says Wolf “accepted the amendment on that basis. … When the conference committee convenes, the House position will be that SBE must be reduced by $15.35 million, and the four physical sciences and engineering directorates will be increased by $15.35 million.”

But because of parliamentary rules, the floor discussion itself is not so clear. “Had Mr. Smith’s amendment actually done what he spoke about, it would have been subject to a point of order,” says the aide familiar with the appropriations process. “As a result, Mr. Wolf’s comments on the floor dealt with the issue generally, and not with the specific SBE cut that Mr. Smith talked about. In short, the aide notes, “the intent and the practical effect of the amendment are not aligned.”

Innocent bystander?  

Ironically, if the Senate and White House eventually agree to the fiscal shift that Smith is proposing, it could end up hobbling plans to improve a one-of-a-kind survey designed to ensure that the United States is developing a capable scientific workforce. The pot of money within SBE for research would grow by only 1.5% next year, in line with the rest of NSF’s research programs. The bulk of the requested increase, some $7.5 million, is slotted for an expansion of the Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR).

The SDR is used to track the career paths of 42,000 scientists and engineers with Ph.D.s earned at U.S. institutions. SDR researchers poll participants every 2 years until age 76. Begun in 1973, the survey has helped shape the debate over the right level and mix of training programs.

However, even such a large and representative sample leaves gaps in what we know about the status of scientists in the workforce, says Jeri Mulrow, deputy director of the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, NSF’s statistical shop. In particular, the current sample isn’t large enough for an analysis of more than 200 scientific subfields by race and gender.

So NSF requested $7.5 million to beef up the next version of the survey, to be fielded in February 2015, by almost doubling the number of participants. The additional funds are needed to identify and contact the new participants, she notes, a growing percentage of whom have moved overseas—or returned home—after earning their degrees. The status of such graduates is a key element in the current debate over immigration reform, and Mulrow says politicians are keen for the data that the SDR can provide.

The expansion will allow NSF “to start to answer important policy questions about the relationships between federal funding and employment outcomes of this highly educated population,” Mulrow explains. “We get a lot of queries about that.”  

Once NSF gets its 2015 budget, officials will decide how much to allocate to the expanded survey and whether any of the money would come from SBE’s research programs. That trade-off, however, didn’t make its way into the debate over the spending bill.