Controversy Over NSF Grants Continues

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Publication date: 
17 October 2014

“On the basis of the most optimistic appraisal of progress, the current review work is 5% complete, which implies that this oversight initiative will span at least 12 months,” wrote House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) in an August 27 letter to National Science Foundation Director France Cordova.   Smith’s prediction, coming at the end of this five page letter, provides a clear signal that the controversy about NSF’s funding of grants will continue well into 2015.

This controversy continues to cause significant conflict between Smith and the most senior Democrat on the committee, Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX).  In a September 30 letter to Smith she wrote “this campaign against NSF’s merit-review system is indefensible absent some compelling explanation of what you are trying to accomplish and why these materials must be in your possession.  As it stands, the investigation looks like a fishing expedition, pure and simple.”

The materials Johnson refers to in her letter stem from an April 7 letter from Smith to NSF that he refers to again in his August letter as “all official documents pertaining to 20 NSF-approved research projects.”  While access has been provided to some redacted official documents under NSF supervision at NSF headquarters, there continues to be disputes about the provision of these documents to the committee. 

Smith’s August 27 letter cites various court decisions that he states affirms that “Congress’s authority to obtain information, including but not limited to, confidential information is extremely broad.”  He later writes “There can be no dispute about the Committee’s authority to oversee the NSF. Furthermore, in its attempts to obtain information about 20 NSF-funded research projects and gain information and insights into the NSF peer review process for awarding approximately $7 billion annually for scientific research, the Committee is certainly pursuing a valid legislative purpose.”

Responding to this point, Johnson writes: “Your August 27 letter articulates the legal case for the broad powers of Congress to compel production of materials from Federal agencies. I have no disagreement with that statement of Congressional rights.  However, what your letter fails to articulate is a convincing reason why you so desperately need the actual records in your possession even after your staff have failed to find any evidence of misconduct.  I believe that the legal right to these documents must be balanced against the potential harm to NSF’s merit-review process from forcing them to be produced.”  In her letter, Johnson also cites a media report containing information that she said was only in confidential material reviewed by the committee staff.

As Smith wrote, the committee’s investigation will continue.  Johnson’s letter refers to a request the Chairman made last month for “the confidential, pre-decisional materials for an additional 30 grants.”   A statement from the committee quoting Smith provides further insight.  Said Smith “There are many grants that no taxpayer would consider in the national interest, or worthy of how their hard-earned dollars should be spent. We have every right and responsibility under the law to limit the government’s waste and misuse of taxpayer dollars. The public deserves an explanation for why the NSF has spent hundreds of thousands of their dollars on musicals about climate change, bicycle designs and a video game that allows users to ‘relive prom night.’ In conducting its proper oversight role, the Committee has not jeopardized the integrity of the peer review process, nor made public any external reviewers' names. Our efforts will continue until NSF agrees to only award grants that are in the national interest.”