The Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a November 13 hearing to discuss research activities at the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Topics of discussion at the hearing included transparency in grant review, technology transfer, open access, and federal investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Members were interested to hear witnesses comment on a discussion draft of the Frontiers in Innovative Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act. This draft legislation is part of the larger effort to reauthorize the 2010 America COMPETES Act.
Subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-IN) opened the hearing stating that the “proposed legislation improves transparency of taxpayer-funded research by making more information available to the public about awarded grants and how they promote the national interest.” He added that the draft bill “is consistent with steps the NSF is already considering to improve accountability, which have been approved by the National Science Board.” On the issue of STEM education, he noted the work of private and nonprofit stakeholders and stated that one of the aims of the discussion draft is to improve coordination between federal STEM programs. Regarding funding levels for the three science agencies, Bucshon stated that the committee plans to wait for the results of the budget negotiations before authorizing funding levels for the various programs.
Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) discussed the effects that sequestration and the uncertain budget environment had on scientific competitiveness. Regarding the Chairman’s intent to wait to include authorization levels, Lipinski stated he would like to avoid letting “budget negotiators dictate to this committee what the appropriate levels of funding are for federal science agencies. Since we are an authorizing committee, we should be leading the discussion about authorization levels.” His priorities for the draft legislation include reinforcing and expanding the role of manufacturing by funding research at NIST and NSF and formally establishing NSF’s I-Corps program. Lipinski also advocated for “sustainable funding to all scientific disciplines” including the social and behavioral sciences, noting that the draft legislation should “not impose any unique restrictions or conditions on any specific type of research.” Lastly he stated he is “not opposed to increasing accountability and transparency” but he believes that the draft bill could “fundamentally alter how merit review is done at an agency that is viewed as a gold standard by the rest of the world.”
Four witnesses testified. Richard Buckius, Vice President for Research at Purdue University emphasized that the legislation draft provides an opportunity to the committee to “meet a great challenge that can both fund future discoveries and innovations and prepare our young people to participate in the innovation future.” He discussed how “placing discretionary research spending in opposition to mandatory [entitlement] spending could jeopardize future discoveries” referring to research funding at the Department of Defense and the science mission agencies. Regarding transparency and access to data, he noted that Purdue supports “public access to the results of federally-funded research which is central to the mission of higher education…. The publication delay time for public access is a key point and various sound arguments have been provided, yet it is important to proceed with the implementation and a shorter delay.” Buckius lastly discussed the draft bill’s discussion of merit review stating that “an affirmation by the foundation should be possible with a slight increase in administrative load. Yet the prior publication of awards and associated information will severely compromise the process and add tremendous administrative burden.”
Daniel Sarewitz, Co-Director for the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes and professor at Arizona State University addressed peer review, the prioritization of research, and predictability of funding. He suggested that “peer review is not the only, and is likely not the most effective, intervention point for improving the accountability of publicly funded science to the public, or for improving the potential value of NSF-funded research to society.” He noted that a recent article in The Economist provides evidence, across many fields of research “that the internal mechanisms of scientific accountability are insufficient and are to some extent failing.” He emphasized that scientific misconduct, which he defined as “the intentional manipulation or fabrication of scientific results” is “not the major cause of the problems of scientific accountability and reliability covered in The Economist article.” The solution to the reliability problem, he suggested, cannot lie wholly with the science enterprise and should come from “improved training in statistics and experimental design, better mechanisms of peer review, [and]changes in publication policies that allow an increased focus on negative findings.” His testimony also included six suggestions regarding the NSF grant process which, in his view, would improve accountability and promote greater public value.
Tim Killeen, President of The Research Foundation for the State University of New York and Vice Chancellor for Research for the State University of New York highlighted the influence that scientific research and education have on society as he mentioned that the draft legislation is a chance to build on and strengthen the U.S. scientific enterprise. He spoke about the falling rankings of U.S. students in science and cautioned that “failing to respond to today’s challenges with sustained strategic investments in our research and education enterprise will pass to future generations the burdens of lost leadership in innovation, possible economic decline, and significantly more limited job opportunities for our youth.” His suggestions for funding science, engineering, education research and workforce development aligned with the National Academies’ report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm.
James Brown, Executive Director of the STEM Education Coalition spoke about issues relating to federal STEM education. He advocated that STEM education policy should “match the rhetoric on its importance” and that STEM policies “must be flexible and adaptive to a rapidly changing educational and workforce landscape.” Regarding the federal STEM education portfolio, he stated that it “is in need of a serious overhaul” and that the plan put forward in the Administrations Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposal “lacked crucial details and was produced with minimal critical input from STEM stakeholders” noting that it lacked details about how or if the consolidated or eliminated programs within the science mission agencies would be incorporated elsewhere within other agencies. He discussed the draft bill’s creation of a STEM Education Advisory Panel, stating that it could be improved by “providing more specificity and transparency on the types of inputs and critical issue areas” and should address “diversity, inclusion, and equity issues.” Brown also provided input on changes to the committee on STEM and the STEM education coordinating office established in the draft legislation.
Bucshon opened his round of questions asking whether the FIRST Act has any congressional interference in the grant evaluation process at NSF. Buckius stated that he would like to see changes in the draft bill language requiring the NSF Director to affirm that the benefit of all awarded grants meets national needs. He also found problematic the requirement that applicants who are not selected to receive grant funding would know this status prior to the announcements of awards.
Lipinski asked how a scientist would affirm that their work meets “national interest.” He also asked about the evaluation process of merit review. Buckius stated that the current two-level NSF review process “works really well” but was not opposed to the affirmation process. He cautioned that affirmation of all grants by one person would be unreasonable. Killeen stated that the basic mission statement of the NSF is in the national interest prior to describing the appeal process for grant review.
Other committee members posed questions about technology transfer, regional approaches to the development of technology, and whether there is a need for an innovation title in the draft legislation. Regarding STEM education, Members asked witnesses for advice on how policies could align constantly changing education strategies in STEM classrooms, how the Department of Defense plays a role in contributing to STEM education, and what were effective methods of informal science education.
While the Committee has now held hearings on discussion drafts of both the EINSTEIN and FIRST Acts, it is likely that any mark up of these bills will occur after a budget deal is reached.