Signs of a Breakthrough: House Science Committee Hearing on NSF Grant Making Policies and Procedures

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A 14-minute exchange between National Science Foundation Director France Cordova, National Science Board Chairman Dan Arvizu, the Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and a subcommittee Ranking Member indicates that the lengthy impasse between key members of the committee and the foundation regarding its grant making policies and procedures apparently has been broken.

The discussion occurred during a ninety-minute hearing the Subcommittee on Research and Technology held on February 26 to review the FY 2016 budget requests of the foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  The tone of this hearing was upbeat, with members from both sides expressing their appreciation and admiration for both agencies.  While concerns were raised about the size of the requested 29.6 percent increase for NIST, which committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) called “unrealistic,” the major story of this hearing was seeming concurrence on new NSF guidelines concerning the importance of research in the national interest, transparency, and accountability.

Chairman Smith, who has been critical of the foundation and some of the grants it has made, indicated his thinking in his opening statement:

“I do want to mention and applaud the steps taken by NSF to improve transparency and accountability.  NSF’s new policy acknowledges the need for NSF to communicate clearly and in non-technical terms when the agency describes the research projects it funds.

“The new policy also emphasizes that the title and abstract for each funded grant should act as the public justification for NSF funding. It should explain how the project serves the national interest and is consistent with the NSF mission, as set forth in the 1950 legislation that created the Foundation.  I understand Dr. Cordova presented this at the November National Science Board meeting and received positive comments.

“It appears the new NSF policy parallels a significant provision of the FIRST Act approved by this Committee last fall – a requirement that NSF publish a justification for each funded grant that sets forth the project’s scientific merit and national interest. The reference to the 1950 original enabling legislation and its NSF mission statement is consistent with the FIRST Act, too.”

The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014 which Smith referred to was intended to revise some of the foundation’s objectives and processes.  An FYI issued a year ago described the bill and quoted some of its Accountability and Transparency provisions as follows: 

“It calls for a ‘determination by the responsible Foundation official as to why the research grant or cooperative agreement – (1) is worthy of federal funding and (2) is in the national interest, as indicated by having the potential to achieve’ one of several objectives, including, notably ‘promotion of the progress of science in the United States.’  There is also language regarding a publically-announced written justification and the NSF’s Merit and Broader Impacts requirement.  ‘Nothing in this section shall be construed as altering the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications’ the bill states.” 

The key exchange began with Subcommittee Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) expressing his support for improving accountability and transparency at the foundation to ensure that research dollars are spent in the best possible manner.  NSF Director Cordova spoke of the foundation being “very engaged in enhancing our transparency and accountability processes.”  She thanked the committee for moving us more in that very important direction.  It was definitely the right time and we want to be very responsive.  We completely agree that it is very, very important that the public understands the investment that this country is making in science and engineering and STEM education.”  Cordova described new foundation practices to clarify and communicate “in clear English” the on-line titles and abstracts of grants and the potential impacts of the research and its applicability to the national interest.  Initial efforts were undertaken in May of last year; as of January 1 of this year Cordova said “we will really see a difference.”  Sitting behind Cordova were the foundation’s Assistant Directors which she said were committed to these changes.  Training, manuals, and guidance were being revised to make what Cordova described as “a culture change” that “takes a while to take hold.”

Full committee chairman Smith posed the next set of questions to Cordova.  He wanted to be sure, he said, that he understood the foundation’s revised policies to ensure they were agreeable and compatible with applicable language in the FIRST Act.  In her reply, Cordova thanked Smith and Lipinski for their interest in the important issue of transparency and accountability.  She cited a section of the FIRST Act regarding national interest and said that it is is “very compatible with the new NSF internal guidelines and with the mission statement of NSF which I quote, ‘to promote the progress of science to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare and to secure the national defense.’  We share the same goals and believe that this policy’s transparency and accountability and national interests are to be found in the 1950 law that created NSF and established our mission.  And so we likewise thought it was important and appropriate to add the explicit reference to the national interest in our revised guidelines.”  When asked if she supports this particular section of the bill, Section 106 (see page 14) she replied affirmatively. 

Smith asked National Science Board Chairman Arvizu if the Board concurred.  Arvizu replied that it supports “the goal that is clearly articulated in this section,” that awards should support the best research and the importance of acting in the national interest.

Other issues discussed during this hearing were the foundation’s support of Social, Behavioral, and Economic research; polar research; research vessels; and STEM education programs.  Acting NIST Director Willie May was asked about programs to strength U.S. manufacturing and the condition of its research facilities. 

It is uncertain what is ahead for the National Science Foundation.  Passing legislation takes much time and effort, and to be signed into law during the remaining years of the Obama Administration requires a bipartisan approach.  The FIRST Act may be viewed as already accomplishing one of its major objectives through the foundation’s revisions of its procedures.  The committee may, however, move ahead with a reauthorization bill of the now expired America COMPETES Act which would provide a legislative mechanism to enact the revisions that NSF has agreed to make.