Read our COVID-19 research and news.

US Capitol at night
Patrick McKay/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Updated: U.S. House passes controversial bill on NSF research

*Update, 11 February, 8:30 a.m.: As expected, the House of Representatives yesterday passed HR 3293 by a 236 to 178 vote. Lawmakers voted largely along party lines, with just seven Democrats voting in favor of the bill and four Republicans against.

After the Wednesday vote, leaders of the House science committee’s majority and minority blocs issued dueling statements.

“This bill ensures that a project’s benefits are clearly communicated to earn the public’s support and trust,” said Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the science panel’s chairperson and the bill’s major backer, in a statement. “Researchers should embrace the opportunity to better explain to the American people the potential value of their work. This bill is an essential step to restore and maintain taxpayer support for basic scientific research.”

“At its core, this bill is about second guessing our Nation’s best and brightest scientists, and the grant making decisions they make,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), in a statement. “[M]y biggest concern about these new requirements is they will push NSF reviewers to fund less high-risk research, which, by its very nature entails the pursuit of scientific understanding without necessarily any particular or known benefit.”

Paul Basken of The Chronicle of Higher Education has more on the debate here.

Here’s our preview story on the vote: 

Next week the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to repeat a warning to the National Science Foundation (NSF) that every one of its research grants must advance “the national interest.” Depending on whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, passage of the Scientific Research in the National Interest Act (HR 3293) is either a simple reminder that federal dollars should be spent wisely, or an unwise and unwarranted intrusion into NSF’s grantsmaking process.

HR 3293 repeats one section of controversial legislation laying out policy guidance for NSF that the House narrowly approved in May 2015. (That bill, HR 1806, is called the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015.) The Senate has yet to take up its version of COMPETES, although staff have been working on a draft for several weeks after collecting community input last year.

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairman of the House science committee, has led the fight for both bills. He argues that they merely codify recent steps that NSF has taken to ensure “greater accountability” of the government’s investment in basic research. After scientific organizations complained that earlier versions of the COMPETES reauthorization would have forced NSF to follow congressionally written rules for making awards, Smith added language to the current bills that says “nothing in this section shall be constructed as altering the Foundation’s [two criteria] for evaluating grant applications.”

Democrats don’t believe him. They think that the legislation is a way to apply a political litmus test that would allow Smith and other Republicans to trim research by social scientists and those studying climate change. “The clear intent of the bill is to change how NSF makes funding decisions, according to what some majority members believe should or shouldn’t be funded,” says Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the top Democrat on the science panel. Citing several grants that Smith and others have called frivolous or worse, Johnson also worries that the legislation, if passed, will make researchers less likely to propose bold ideas out of fear that their work will be publicly ridiculed.

A vote on HR 3293 is scheduled for 10 February. The larger and more comprehensive COMPETES bill passed last year by a margin of 217 to 205, with 23 Republicans voting against it and no Democrats in favor.