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What Makes Congress’s Latest Effort to Curb Science Funding So Dangerous?

A bill making its way through the House Science, Space and Technology Committee would set the country’s science agenda by favoring certain disciplines


POLITICAL SCIENCE: A House bill would provide the NSF with prescriptive amounts that could be spent on different scientific disciplines. The Biological Science Directorate, for example, would receive middling funding at about $743 million. Here Sean Cutler, an assistant professor of plant cell biology in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, examines an Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant used widely in plant biology labs as a model organism.
Image courtesy of the National Science Foundation.

Congress’s unprecedented effort to cap spending on specific scientific research projects has created a stir that has reached as high as the White House. The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014 H.R. 4186 (pdf) seeks greater accountability from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the way it spends its $7-billion annual budget—a reasonable goal that few have argued against. The controversy is over the less-than-scientific approach that FIRST would take to decide which projects get funded.
 
As written by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee, FIRST seeks to prioritize research and development in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering and mathematics to specifically address national needs. The bill requires the NSF to provide clear justifications to Congress for why grants that receive taxpayer dollars are in the national interest, although the legislation would not change the NSF’s peer review process, according to Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R–Texas).
 
But the NSF counters that certain elements of FIRST do not advance scientists' efforts to improve U.S. economic growth, prosperity and security. The agency’s greatest concern is that the bill's specification of budget allocations to each NSF directorate would hinder flexibility in funding different types of research, particularly projects based in social and behavioral sciences as well as economics. Furthermore, despite Smith’s assertion that the peer review process would not be tampered with, Congress would actually be inserting itself into funding decisions, presidential science adviser John Holdren said at last week’s annual American Association for the Advancement of Science Forum on Science and Technology Policy.
 
To get a better sense of the potential impact of FIRST on science funding, Scientific American spoke with Neal Lane, who served as an assistant to the president for science and technology in the Clinton administration and as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from August 1998 to January 2001. Lane also served as NSF director and member of the National Science Board (ex officio) from October 1993 to August 1998. He is currently a senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.
 
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
 
What makes the FIRST Act so controversial?
It’s hard to know where to begin. This bill is quite different from any I’m aware of that preceded it. The most striking contrast is with the America COMPETES [Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science] acts—including the 2007 and 2010 versions as well as the latest 2014 bill currently in the pipeline. Those pieces of legislation propose substantial increases in funding for several agencies that support basic research, including the NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST] and the Office of Science in the Department of Energy as well as funding for the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House.
 
The committee has limited jurisdiction, which is why the COMPETES and FIRST bills cover only a few agencies. The committee’s current Republican leadership appears to be under severe constraints to control government spending, and the FIRST bill is an effort to get an authorization in place for at least a few agencies—this bill covers only NSF, NIST and OSTP, and the proposed funding increases are small.
 
The FIRST bill asserts that its goal is “increasing the national investment in general scientific research and increasing interdisciplinary investment in strategic areas vital to the national interest.” Smith himself has said that the FIRST Act “does not change NSF’s peer review process.” Where does it go wrong?
Lots of places. The bill seeks to authorize particular amounts of funding for different research areas, or directorates. That includes a terrible number [$150 million] for the social, behavioral and economic sciences. I don’t ever remember that kind of specificity being written into an authorization bill. Authorization bills recommend bottom line numbers for the agencies like the NSF and trust that the agency will determine how best to use its resources. FIRST would micromanage the funding allocation of these science agencies.
 
The bill also proposes a new layer of bureaucracy in the peer review process by making the NSF director sign off on any grant award [as well as submit to Congress an evaluation of approved projects and recommendations for optimizing a project’s effectiveness], a process that clearly would be burdensome for the director and agency. The committee would say it has not changed the criteria for reviewing each proposal. But they are telling the head of the NSF that she has to guarantee that every proposal meets one or more particular criteria that relate to serving the national interest. The committee is trying to have it both ways—telling the scientific community that it’s not undermining the peer review process while at the same time telling the director that she must declare that every proposal meets the committee's criteria, apparently to convince the American public that the committee is paying closer attention to spending on science. This reflects a lack of understanding with regard to the decision-making peer review process that goes into funding the best research.
 
How does a committee dedicated to science and technology development fail to grasp the intricacies of the funding this development?
There’s an ideological side to this. I have no reason to doubt that Chairman Smith is trying to improve funding for science. But at the same time he’s dealing with conservative viewpoints in his party and on his committee that hold negative views about certain areas of research, such as social science. I saw this anti–social science attitude when I was in Washington. In the FIRST bill geosciences would also be cut considerably, and that’s where climate science is supported.
 
What is the next step for the FIRST Act?
If it is voted out of committee, it could go to the floor of the House for a broader vote. Of course, lots of bills that clear committee never reach the floor for a vote—that depends on how the House juggles its priorities. If the bill were to be approved by the House, the question then becomes what happens in the Senate. Based on what I know, there aren’t any bills in the Senate currently that resemble FIRST, which lessens the likelihood that this piece of legislation would pass through Congress.
 
How is FIRST’s proposed funding different from the way the NSF normally chooses projects for funding?
The funding amounts in FIRST reflect the view held by many in the Republican Party that some areas of science are more important than other areas. That’s not based as far as I know on any analysis of the NSF’s track record, but rather on the view that some science just sounds more relevant or a perception that some committee members might have that math, chemistry or computer research projects have been more successful in leading to practical applications than those in other disciplines.
 
Usually NSF budget allocations to directorates such as Geosciences, or Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences don’t change much from year to year. The allocations are based on such considerations as contributions made in the past, how many proposals are coming in and discussions with the National Science Board about funding priorities. Any sudden changes in funding amounts such as what FIRST proposes for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences indicates something else is going on. This is dangerous because you can do an enormous amount of damage by shutting down long-term studies on, for example, voting patterns that help us understand how our democracy works. Some people don’t want to know what those results are or don’t trust them. There’s no way for Congress to know how changes to funding will impact science because they are not close enough to these projects. Congress does not have the scientific expertise to second-guess an agency like the NSF or the peer review process used to make difficult funding decisions.
 
What is the prognosis for FIRST moving forward?
This bill has surprised me. It’s an unusual authorization measure that funds only two years, with one of those years already funded. Still, this committee has a pretty good historical record of getting its bills—like COMPETES and authorization for the National Nanotechnology Initiative during the Clinton administration—to the floor and getting them signed into law. I don’t expect this bill to become law.
 
What role should Congress have when it comes to federal funding for scientific research?
Congress does have an important oversight responsibility for federal agencies, including the amount of funding and how that money is spent. Rather than offering prescriptive rules, however, committees should inform themselves of what agencies are doing through hearings and the day-to-day interactions they have with agency leadership. NSF has been implementing a new level of transparency, for example, that will help nonspecialists better understand the benefit and value of a particular piece of scientific research. This decision probably came out of a discussion between the NSF and the committee.

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