House Committee Debates Role of Political Considerations in Funding Science

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How do we assure hardworking American families that their tax dollars are spent only on high priority research that is in the national interest?,” asked House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) in his opening remarks of a meeting to consider his bill, H.R. 3293, the “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act.”To remain a world leader, we must ensure that our investments fund the highest quality basic research in science that serves our nation’s interest. Unfortunately, in recent years, the federal government has awarded too many grants that few Americans would consider to be in the national interest.

Smith’s opening statement was followed by an exchange that highlighted significant differences in opinion among lawmakers regarding the process and criteria the government should use in deciding what research it funds. Ranking Member of the Committee Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who opposes Smith’s legislation, asked in her opening statement a question that captured a very different viewpoint:

If we do not trust the nation’s scientific experts to make that judgment on whether a scientific grant is worthy of funding or not, then who are we to trust?” “The appropriate forum for that debate is the NSF’s world renowned, and much replicated merit review process, not the halls of Congress.”

Smith’s bill would require the National Science Foundation (NSF) to show how each grant or cooperative agreement it awards is “worthy of Federal funding” and “in the national interest,” according to seven specific criteria. Smith indicated that his intention with H.R. 3293 is to increase transparency and accountability in the NSF grant making process.

Johnson expressed concerns, however, that requiring research grants to meet a specific standard of benefiting the national interest could deter scientists from taking risks on bold and outside-the-box ideas in their research. Said Johnson:

Because anything you do that invites any attention from Congress will lead to significant and undeserved harassment and may even endanger your career, what we are really doing with this bill is to squelch creativity, risk-taking, critical thinking, and the open exchange of ideas.

As FYI reported earlier this year, H.R. 3293 would require NSF to make an affirmative determination, justified in writing for each grant or cooperative agreement, that it is “in the national interest.” The seven criteria for being in the national interest are: (1) increased economic competitiveness in the U.S.; (2) advancement of the health and welfare of the American public; (3) development of an American science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce that is globally competitive; (4) increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the U.S.; (5) increased partnerships between academia and industry in the U.S.; (6) support for the national defense of the U.S.; and (7) the promotion of the progress of science for the U.S.

The language of H.R. 3293 is identical to a section of the “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015,” which FYI reported the full House passed on May 20.  This is the first time, however, the committee has considered the section as a standalone bill.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) spoke in support of Smith’s bill:

This bill recognizes a simple fact, which is that there is such a thing as practical science. …. We understand that science is not only beautiful in and of itself, but it also has the ability to solve solvable problems, expand human capabilities, and improve the lives of people. … Secondly, it’s a fact that there are limited resources, and whenever you have limited resources, you have to make choices, sometimes difficult choices.

Grayson also pointed out that the bill’s definition of what is in the national interest is sufficiently broad that he expects “virtually all” currently successful NSF grant applications would have no difficulty meeting the new certification requirements. Grayson suggested the requirements of the bill would be interpreted “broadly and liberally.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) joined the Ranking Member in opposing the bill, indicating that there is significant opposition to the bill in the scientific community, including from John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, “who expressed strong reservations about this very language when he weighed in on the majority’s COMPETES bill earlier this year.” Lofgren summed up why she opposes the bill:

I think that the possibility of substituting political review for the peer review process is adverse to basic science research. … The possibility of stifling scientific innovation by discouraging scientists from pursuing high-risk, high-reward research is very present and very clear with this bill.

Lofgren pointed out that the NSF has already taken steps, at the urging of the House Science Committee, to clearly show how each research grant or cooperative agreement awarded has the potential for broader societal impacts. Under the leadership of NSF Director France Cordova, the Foundation released a revised Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG) in December 2014 that called for clear, non-technical project descriptions for research grants that highlight both the scientific value of the research and its tie to national interest, as justified through NSF's mission: to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; or to secure the national defense. Smith’s bill would codify into law this change in the NSF guidelines. For more information, see Significant Changes and Clarifications to the PAPPG on the NSF website. 

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) said that she was dismayed at the idea that Congress would “go down this track of substituting peer review…for our political instincts about what works and not,” adding she is concerned about the bill and its approach to science. Edwards pointed out that scientists sometimes get results that are unexpected and that turn out to have a profound impact on society, even if no one could have anticipated it ahead of time.  She told a few stories of such science, including this one:

Back in 1961, a scientist from Japan who was studying at Princeton got a little bit of money to study why jellyfish glow green. Under this proposed legislation many of us might have said, ‘Why do we care why jellyfish glow green?’ ... But it was through that research started in 1961, built upon in 1988 a quarter of a century later by a gentleman named Martin Chalfie,…the green fluorescent protein was discovered. It was from that protein that then led another scientist several years later, Roger Tsien … All of those improvements over time have led to a better understanding of genetics, biology, development biology, neurobiology, cancer, brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s, and other diseases, and have been used in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. The point is that over three decades (and these collective gentlemen won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2008) this collective work over a period of time, not predicted at the beginning, maybe not even identified as practical, becomes research that is very practical indeed for curing diseases and for saving lives.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), the only Ph.D. scientist currently serving in Congress, concluded the hearing with a succinct statement of strong opposition to Smith’s bill. Foster spoke directly and firmly from his point of view as a scientist:

I have to say that I am disappointed to see this committee spending its time reconsidering the unnecessary and redundant provisions of this bill. … Why are we here today considering this legislation? We all claim to bemoan the loss of American scientific competitiveness, and then we turn around and consider a bill that would only add rigid and time consuming bureaucratic requirements that stifle the exact kind of curiosity driven research that has made us a world leader. The NSF merit review process is known as the gold standard for a reason. And the claim that this bill would somehow restore accountability and merit to this process carries with it the presupposition that the system is broken. As a scientist who has watched the operation of the peer review and merit review process throughout my career, I do not share this belief. And so I urge my colleagues to oppose this bill.

Following Foster’s statement, Chairman Smith called for a voice vote on H.R. 3293.  Upon hearing more ayes than nays, he declared the bill reported favorably to the full House of Representatives.