As the top Democrat on the House of Representatives science committee, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) has vociferously defended the National Science Foundation (NSF) against criticism from the panel’s chair, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), and other Republicans. This week, in a letter to Smith, Johnson described Smith’s 18-month inquiry into NSF’s grantsmaking process as “a fishing expedition” aimed ultimately at reducing NSF’s funding of the social and behavioral sciences. That inquiry has included having committee staffers pore over all the material NSF used in deciding to fund 50 grants that Smith regards as questionable.
However, the most controversial passage in Johnson’s letter may be when she asks Smith if he played any role in an alleged leak of confidential information to FOXNews.com. She asserts that the breach, involving details of an NSF grant to a New York City theater group for a play about climate change and biodiversity, was designed “to embarrass the agency and the grantee.”
Smith has repeatedly criticized the award and other projects related to public understanding of climate change. The production, now closed, also has become a favorite target for conservative media. Last month, for example, FOXNews.com ran an article headlined “Curtain, reviews come down on taxpayer-funded climate change musical,” in which Smith declares: “There is no doubt that the Great Immensity was a great mistake.”
Johnson doesn’t address the quality of the production in her letter. But she says the news story “contained at least two pieces of information that were not publicly available and that were available in the confidential materials reviewed by both your staff and mine.” After saying her staff “never shared this information,” she lowers the boom: “A reasonable person could conclude that the only other party who had access to this material—you or your staff—released the information. I seek your assurance that this did not happen.”
Asked for a comment, Smith authorized this statement from an aide to the science committee: “In conducting its proper oversight role, the Committee has not jeopardized the integrity of the peer review process, nor made public any sensitive information. Staff closely followed the written terms of the document review, as laid out by the agency.”
According to Johnson, the leaked information appears in one sentence of the FOXNews.com report, describing the play’s fate: “It opened a year late [and] reached just five percent of its anticipated audience,” Perry Chiaramonte writes. But parsing out exactly what is confidential about the contents of that sentence is a bit more complicated.
A publicly available grant abstract on NSF’s website says the company hopes 75,000 people will attend its performances. But the actual attendance—from which the 5% figure could then be calculated—is available only in the annual reports filed with NSF by the theater company, The Civilians.
Those reports are not public. But they were part of the thousands of pages of grants-related material that the committee staff reviewed this summer. Likewise, the play’s production schedule is described only in the annual report, not the publicly available documents.
Why does it matter? NSF’s initial reluctance to share any predecisional material with the committee was based on concerns that it could lead to a breach in confidentiality. In a 27 August letter to NSF Director France Córdova—part of a voluminous file of correspondence that committee Democrats have just released—Smith first tells Córdova that he has the law on his side. “[Federal] courts have held that release of information to Congress is not considered to be disclosure to the general public,” he writes. He then hastens to assure Córdova that the material will be safe in his hands. “Once documents are in Congressional control, the federal courts have ruled that appropriate handling of sensitive information is to be presumed,” he writes.
Johnson, however, believes that the leak, by whoever’s hand, demonstrates that NSF’s initial concerns were justified. “If such a breach occurred,” she writes Smith, “I am convinced even further of NSF’s need to protect confidential grant materials.”
It’s not clear how this dispute will be resolved. But the current principal investigator on the grant, Sarah Benvenuti, is staying on the sidelines. The grant expired on 31 July, and Benvenuti hopes to submit a final report to NSF by the end of the month.
“We want to support NSF in every way possible,” she says tactfully. “The development of the show was important, and our report will be very thorough.”