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Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) leads the U.S. House of Representatives science committee.

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Hate COMPETES? With new bill, Rep. Smith doubles down on pending NSF legislation

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) has struck again. Just when it looked as if he had struck a truce with opponents in a 2-year battle over legislation—passed this spring by the House of Representatives—that provides guidance to the National Science Foundation (NSF), Smith yesterday reintroduced the most contentious portion of that bill as standalone legislation.

The new bill repackages Section 106 of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806), which would require NSF to tell the public why every award is “in the national interest.” It lists seven criteria, including bolstering the nation’s economy, improving its scientific workforce, and fostering partnerships with industry.

NSF Director France Córdova has said the agency is already doing what the COMPETES bill requires as part of an effort to “enhance transparency and accountability.” A recent “important notice” to the academic community, for example, explains how NSF program managers are now working with principal investigators to make sure the abstract and title of every grant conveys the value of the research being funded.

Córdova took those steps over several months in response to Smith’s ongoing attacks on dozens of individual NSF grants that he considers to be inappropriate or wasteful. He repeats some of those examples in the press release announcing his latest bill, a strong indication that he believes the problem still exists.

Research advocates say those attacks are unwarranted and that they disregard the expert views of the thousands of scientists who vet grant proposals as part of NSF’s vaunted merit-review process. They also fear that the language in Smith’s bills will lead researchers to be more timid in what they propose, out of fear that NSF will reject bolder ideas to avoid invoking the wrath of legislators. And they fear the legislation will embolden legislators to micromanage NSF grantsmaking.

“Chairman Smith has again substituted political review for peer review in explicitly attacking individual NSF grants,” says Heather O’Beirne Kelly of the American Psychological Association (APA), which opposes Section 106. “APA is opposed to any efforts that would discourage researchers from proposing cutting-edge projects and stifle the progress of scientific innovation and discovery.”

The new bill does not appear to reflect any significant change in the political landscape. “Chairman Smith has been investigating NSF grants he doesn’t like since he became chairman of the committee,” says Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), who has battled Smith as the top Democrat on the science panel. “This legislative effort is very much connected to his effort to impose his own, political level of review on NSF’s gold standard merit-review process.”

No Democrats voted for the COMPETES Act when it passed the House this past May by a margin of 217 to 205. In committee, a Democratic amendment to strike Section 106 lost on a largely party line vote. Only Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL) voted to preserve the language, saying that he was pleased that Smith had abandoned more punitive language proposed in earlier drafts and that NSF was comfortable with what it would require. Lipinski is one of two Democrats—Representative Alan Grayson (D–FL) is the other—who have joined 16 Republicans on the science committee as co-sponsors of the new bill, called “Scientific Research in the National Interest.” The new bill could be marked up by the committee once the House returns from its August recess.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, the commerce and science committee is holding meetings with stakeholders before it drafts its version of the COMPETES Act, which also covers programs at the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology and science education across the federal government.