Is Social Science Research in the National Interest?

A battle is raging in the House of Representatives over an effort to clip the National Science Foundation’s wings

Today the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives will begin debate on a bill key to national research funding and priorities. The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014 (H.R. 4186) would, among other things, require the National Science Foundation to cut research for social sciences and economics and certify to Congress that each taxpayer-funded grant it issues is in the national interest.

Last week Scientific American published an interview with Neal Lane, a former White House science advisor, that was critical of the FIRST Act. Rep. Lamar Smith (R–Texas), chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and co-sponsor of the FIRST Act, contacted us and asked for a chance to respond. We publish Rep. Smith’s essay below along with a commentary on the FIRST Act by Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, and Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.—The Editors


The Role of Congress Is to Set Priorities for Research
By Rep. Lamar Smith (R–Texas)

Technological advancement drives U.S. economic growth. Sustained public and private sector investments in mathematics, engineering, computer science and biology have led to new and expanded industries. Advancements in these fields have created millions of jobs that have supported generations of American families. Since World War II the U.S. has led the world in research and development. And America still spends more on R&D than any other nation.

But experts warn that other nations are catching up. Recent forecasts suggest that China will overtake the U.S. in total R&D spending by 2022. China can already lay claim to the world’s fastest supercomputer, an area of long-standing U.S. dominance. And the World Bank reports that China’s high-tech exports are more than double those of the U.S.

Unfortunately, there has been a shift in priorities at the National Science Foundation (NSF) away from basic research in engineering and the physical sciences toward social/behavioral/economic (SBE) studies. In his budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 the president proposes to increase SBE by more than 5 percent while freezing or cutting funds for engineering and physical sciences.

I believe the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act sets a better course for taxpayer-funded research. The FIRST Act refocuses taxpayer investments on basic research in engineering, mathematics, computer science and biology, increasing funding for those NSF directorates by between 7 and 8 percent for the next fiscal year. These are the areas singled out by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine as the primary drivers of our economic future. These are the areas of science with the greatest potential to yield transformational new technologies, catalyze new industries and businesses as well as create millions of new jobs.

Setting priorities for federally funded research is not new. During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, under both Republican and Democrat administrations, Congress regularly defined annual appropriations and authorizations by academic field. Neal Lane, former science advisor to Pres. Bill Clinton who criticized the FIRST Act in a recent Scientific American interview, apparently has forgotten that Clinton signed the NSF Authorization Act of 1998, which was just as specific in delineating research priorities as the FIRST Act.

There is understandable resistance to Congressional policymaking from those who prefer NSF’s funding to come without having to answer questions from Congress or the taxpayers.  Under this approach NSF has lavished funds on what can be described charitably as questionable projects. For example, NSF provided $700,000 for a climate change musical. Meanwhile, supporters of the NSF wring their hands publicly about rejection of four out of five basic research applications due to lack of funds.

Congress has a constitutional responsibility to set balanced national priorities for government-supported research. Under the FIRST Act there will be more federal support for basic research that will enable America’s scientists to continue working on the leading edges of physics, chemistry, bioscience, photonics, cybersecurity, additive manufacturing, nanotechnology and other key areas of discovery science.

It’s also the responsibility of Congress to assure that every federal agency, including the NSF, meets minimum standards of transparency and accountability. The FIRST Act requires NSF to write and publish a plain-English summary of each grant that has been selected for funding, which happens after the merit-review process. In this summary NSF will describe the grant’s scientific merit and its relevance to the national interest and “the progress of science in the United States.”

Pres. Harry Truman vetoed the initial legislation to create the NSF because the bill approved by Congress would have insulated the foundation permanently from public accountability. In Truman’s words, “The proposed National Science Foundation would be divorced from control by the people to an extent that implies a distinct lack of faith in democratic processes.

All government employees and their program managers should answer to the American taxpayers who fund their projects. It’s not the government’s money; it’s the people’s money. And it’s the role of Congress to set priorities for research that are in the national interest.

Rep. Lamar Smith represents Texas’s 21st Congressional District and chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

FIRST Act Could Widen Nation’s Innovation Deficit

By Peter McPherson and Hunter Rawlings

In 2007 Congress and Pres. Bush responded to an alarming report by The National Academies entitled “Rising above the Gathering Storm.” The report provided hard evidence that our nation’s global leadership in scientific research and innovation was threatened by lagging federal investment and the growing strength of scientific enterprises in the rising economies of Asia. Congress passed the America COMPETES Act, which established a bipartisan vision for revitalizing the nation’s research and innovation enterprise.

Seven years later the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is considering the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act, a measure that partially reauthorizes the COMPETES Act but does not live up to that original vision. It does little to close, and could widen, what we now call the nation’s innovation deficit.

Last year the business, scientific and higher education communities agreed on guiding principles for sustaining the COMPETES Act. The FIRST Act falls short of these principles in too many areas.

A key principle is that federal scientific agencies, guided by their advisory boards, should continue to set priorities for funding within and among the full range of scientific disciplines. This bill, however, significantly cuts specific areas of National Science Foundation (NSF) research. First, it cuts the social, behavioral and economic sciences, which are vital to solving our economic, health and security challenges. Better understanding and combating terrorism and cyber warfare, improving disaster preparedness, fighting crime and changing behaviors to combat global health problems are just a few of the many areas where such research has played a major role. Second, the bill cuts the geosciences, which are critical to understanding our planet.

The NSF, guided by the independent National Science Board, has for decades prioritized its portfolios to advance the nation’s scientific and research enterprise, and to address major societal and economic challenges. The results have been extraordinary. To move away from this practice is troubling.

Another key principle is to reduce unnecessary or duplicative federal regulations. Yet the bill has provisions that seem to reflect a view that science and scientists are a problem rather than a vital resource for the nation’s economy, health and national security.

For example, despite strong, existing scientific misconduct policies, the bill adds for NSF researchers stiff penalties that exceed those of other agencies. To what purpose? Another provision would require scientists whose NSF-funded research has lasted five years to prove that any additional funded research will be “original…and transformative,” even if the work is building productively on such research earlier in the grant. What is gained by imposing such an unnecessary requirement?

Moreover, the FIRST Act would undo the policy agreement that should soon give the public free access to the published results of federally funded research no more than 12 months following publication. Rather, the bill would keep the results from free public access for two years or more.

Finally, an important guiding principle was to set funding targets for the NSF and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology that would permit real growth to stimulate long-term competitiveness and economic prosperity. Yet the FIRST Act does not even keep pace with inflation for these agencies. The act gives the NSF a 1.5 percent budget increase from fiscal year 2014 to 2015, for instance, whereas inflation is anticipated to be 1.7 percent.

Nearly 70 years ago this country adopted an approach to research that supported scientists at universities in order to combine research and education, grounded in the notion that science should be funded based on merit, not politics. It was a fundamentally conservative notion. Other countries relied on a government research apparatus but this country planted seeds at institutions—in Columbus and Berkeley, in Baltimore and Chapel Hill, in College Park, College Station and State College. And the seeds sprouted. Several technological and medical revolutions later the world gets it and is beginning to replicate our success. Only one major country is starting to move away from this model: the U.S.

We are eager to work with sponsors of the legislation on changes that truly could make it a visionary measure.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, has been president of Cornell University.

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, has been president of Michigan State University and deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

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