Congress Headed for a Fight on Science

December 5, 2013

Congress appears ready to start of new fight on what until recently has been a largely non-partisan issue.  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) has circulated draft legislation to reauthorize and replace the America COMPETES Act.   Entitled the “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, Technology Act of 2013” or FIRST Act, the draft is the reported first of two bills that would reauthorize key civilian research programs of the federal government.  The COMPETES Act,  or the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007, was first passed in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010 by large bipartisan margins.

The proposed legislation authorizes and directs a wide range of activities of federal agencies and offices including the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), essentially the bulk of the nation’s non-medical, civilian research and development.  On the Senate side, the Commerce, Space and Transportation Committee held a hearing on November 6th, while no draft legislation has been circulated by the Senate, Senators on both sides of the aisle stressed the importance of research and development and voiced strong support to continuing in the spirit of the COMPETES Act.

In contrast, a November 13th hearing of the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology proved far more contentious. The hearing focused on the draft legislation which contains a proposal that would require the National Science Foundation (NSF) to justify every grant it awards as being in the “national interest”.  The provision would require the NSF to document how its basic-science grants benefit the country.  The bill defines includes an expansive definition of natural interest that includes six goals: economic competitiveness, health and welfare, scientific literacy, partnerships between academia and industry, promotion of scientific progress and national defense.  Those criteria are in line with a ‘broader impacts’ assessment that the NSF already requires scientists to include in their grant applications. But the bill would place an extra requirement on NSF program directors by requiring them to publish justification for each grant award on the foundation’s website. The science, engineering, and technology communities remain concerned that the proposal would disrupt the long time peer-review method of making research grants and replace it with federal employees making grant decisions.

Science Committee staffers have told science community groups that the proposed language is necessary to gain support or at least preempt opposition from some conservative lawmakers who object to funding of social science research and some research they see as “silly or unnecessary”.   While NSF acknowledges that they need to improve communicating the merits of grants across the board – they stand by their assertion that through the widely accepted peer-review process, NSF funds the best science.

ASCE supports a quick re-authorization of the nation’s civilian research and development programs, and joins with science, engineering, and technology organizations, universities, and corporations in expressing concern with the House proposal to alter the peer review method of grant selection.  The draft has also been criticized for a lack of vision and merely being a list of items the Majority believes need to be corrected.  The bottom line is that the controversy will likely join the long list of issues that progress has slowed or stopped.

  • I would like to state at the outset that my biases are strongly against the current House of Representatives majority and their agenda.

    However, I don’t see how publishing the ‘broader impacts’ assessments on the Internet would destroy the peer – review process. This justification requirement looks like another piece of congressionally mandated steer manure, of a type already familiar to anyone who deals with or works in government in the United States. I don’t know that the justification clause is inherently sinister. True, it could provide more ammunition for long, negative, speeches in Congress, but that shouldn’t be the end of the world. I wonder if there is something here that I’m not seeing…

  • I was a program director at NSF between July 1987 and July 1988. I was what was then called a “rotator” who takes off a year or two from a university to participate at NSF. I had often heard comments about incompetent people at NSF and I wanted to see if the comments were true. I found that the rotators tended to be intelligent, hard working, people who tried to make things better. I found that the permanent staff were at the opposite end of the spectrum. The permanent people were heavily interested in non-technical matters, e.g., politics, the latest buzz words (“interdiscipinary” was the word then), the race or gender of the person writing the proposal, and whether funding would be provided to universities that had no on-going research programs, i.e., had no facilities to do the work and no faculty with appropriate qualifications. In other words, they were playing politics. I heard of funding going out to support proposals that were just nonsense, and proposals from accomplished researchers who had great ideas and the ability to implement them, declined. My experience with the only panel I used was really bad and I knew, selected, and respected, everyone on the panel. The bad experience was a shock. Comments about proposals were often shallow and inaccurate, as if the person had, at best, skimed the proposal, or simply had no clue about the state of knowledge in the particular narrow area of a particulr proposal. Subsequently, I had most of the proposals for my program, reviewed by at least five accomplished people who did not meet as a panel and the reviews were much more insightful. At least, all of my reviewers were experts in the area involved with the proposal. An example of the ridiculous instructions we (program directors) got from administrators, was the instruction that we “must not discrimitate against the mentally handicaped”. I expressed my view of such nonsense with some permanent employees and they didn’t see anything wrong with the instruction. I suspect the person, or group, who wrote such nonsense were mentally handicaped because it would have been ridiculous to waste tax payer’smoney funding a propsal by someone with an IQ of say 70, just to satisfy someone’s political aims. I heard of many proposals in social sciences that were funded and certainly impressed me as being nonsense. The fundamental problem was clearly congress because congress members were interested in getting re-elected as opposed to supporting useful research that would be in the public interest. Influence from members of congress is the classic case of “sending the fox to guard the henhouse”. Unfortunately, we need someone to look over programs at NSF, and other such agencies, and try to ensure they are properly directed and that job seems to fall to congress.

    My experience in Washington left me with the impression that we survive, and perhaps excell, because most of the world has governments that are even worse than ours. It is a sad state of affairs.

  • J Neil Jednoralski

    I agree with bill !

    Neil J

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