House to Vote on Bill to Require Science to Serve the “National Interest”

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The House is poised to consider stand-alone legislation sponsored by House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith that would require recipients of National Science Foundation grant funding to justify research as “in the national interest,” based on a definition related to NSF’s mission and founding charter.

This Wednesday afternoon the House is slated to consider legislation that would require National Science Foundation (NSF) grantees to provide written justification for how their science is serving a congressionally-sanctioned definition of the national interest. The “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act,” which the House Science Committee has already approved and the full House passed as a section of the “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015,” is still controversial among members of Congress and in the national scientific community.

The bill’s sponsor, chairman of the House Science Committee Lamar Smith (R-TX), says the bill is necessary to “ensure that our investments fund the highest quality basic research in science that serves our nation’s interest.” Leaders of the scientific community have expressed serious concerns, saying it infringes on the nation’s “gold standard” scientific merit review process and arguing that science delivers the best societal outcomes when it operates largely independent of political direction.

Smith seeks greater transparency and accountability for science

Smith introduced his science in the national interest legislation last July, asserting the policy as a needed step for transparency and accountability and that taxpayer-funded research should serve society. In defending his legislation in the Winter 2016 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, Smith wrote:

We owe it to American taxpayers and the scientific community to ensure that every grant funded is worthy and in the national interest.In recent years…NSF has seemed to stray from its created purpose and has funded a number of grants that few Americans would consider to be in the national interest. … In carrying out that duty, my committee has questioned why NSF spent $700,000 of taxpayer money on a climate change musical, $220,000 to study animal photos in National Geographic magazine, or $50,000 to study lawsuits in Peru from 1600 to 1700, among dozens of examples. There may be good justifications for such work, but NSF has an obligation to the public to provide those explanations.

Following a heated debate in October, Smith won his committee’s approval for the bill in a voice vote, but only after facing vocal opposition. Ph.D.-physicist-turned-congressman Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) spoke in opposition to the bill in committee, and bipartisan support remains thin. Of the bill’s co-sponsors, two are Democrats while 20 are Republicans.

NSF-funded scientific studies singled out, investigated

For years, Smith and other members of Congress have singled out and pilloried specific research grants they believe are not proper uses of taxpayer resources. Often the targets are identified through compendiums compiled to highlight excessive or wasteful federal spending, like last year’s “Wastebook: The Farce Awakens” released by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and “Federal Fumbles” by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK).

Smith has used his oversight role over NSF to elevate accusations of waste in federally funded science to full blown investigations. At least four times during the summer of 2014, House Science Committee staffers visited NSF headquarters in Arlington, Va., to audit the agency’s scientific merit review process for a number of grants. The staffers examined primary documents related to the awarding of over 20 NSF grants, looking for signs of improper decision making or other flaws in the merit review process.

Legislation defines science in the national interest

Smith first introduced the science in the national interest language as a section of his 2013 and 2014 “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act” and again as part of his 2015 “America COMPETES Authorization Act,” which the House passed in May 2015. Smith’s language, now being offered as stand-alone legislation, would require NSF to certify each grant or cooperative agreement it awards is “worthy of Federal funding” and “in the national interest.

An explicit definition of national interest is included in the legislation:

[A grant is in the national interest if it has] the potential to achieve—(A) increased economic competitiveness in the United States; (B) advancement of the health and welfare of the American public; (C) development of an American STEM workforce that is globally competitive; (D) increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the United States; (E) increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States; (F) support for the national defense of the United States; or (G) promotion of the progress of science for the United States.

In Smith’s view, this definition is in line with NSF’s founding mission “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.” Smith believes his bill would bring NSF in line with the original intent of the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 that established the agency.

Impact of legislation on NSF grant making process uncertain

While national interest criteria imposed by statute would be new for NSF, Smith’s legislation may not change the NSF proposal process in practice. The science agency already requires all grantees to address not only the "intellectual merit" but also the "broader impacts" of their proposed research, with the broader impacts criterion explicitly including benefits to society. Daniel Sarewitz, Professor of Science and Society at Arizona State University, testified before the House Science Committee in 2013 that the national interest requirement would just add a "meaningless level of rubber-stamping to the grant approval process.

Also, NSF policy has already moved in the direction of Smith’s bill in recent years. In Dec. 2014, NSF Director France Córdova announced new grant making guidelines that were a nod to Smith’s concerns. The guidelines require that all proposal abstracts state clearly and in non-technical terms how the research proposed will serve the national interest. In testimony before the House Science Committee in Jan. 2015, Córdova indicated she believes that the new NSF grant making policies are compatible and consistent with Smith’s philosophy.

NSB, Foster express serious concerns, defend NSF merit review process

Some leaders in the scientific community have pushed back against science in the national interest legislation, which they see as an infringement on a scientific merit review process that is widely respected and has succeeded in delivering benefits for the American people for decades. The NSB, which is the governing body of NSF, issued a statement in April 2014 voicing the board’s concerns about the proposed new requirements, warning of a detrimental impact on scientific freedom and leadership.

The statement read:

We…do not see a need to impose new, more inflexible, legislated requirements on NSF and our science and engineering communities. We are concerned that the proposed new legislative requirements might discourage visionary proposals or transformative science at a time when advancing the decades-long U.S. leadership in science and technology is a top priority.

The NSB also argued that science has delivered economic prosperity and security for the nation for decades and never before has it required direction from Congress on what science to prioritize in order to contribute effectively to society.

During last year’s committee business meeting, Foster warned that the new requirements in the bill would impose additional administrative burden on scientists who already face significant grant and other administrative paperwork. He came out strongly against the bill:

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.

The scientific community will be watching the outcome of the “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act” as it reaches a vote on the House floor on Wednesday afternoon. As it already approved the language as a section of a larger bill last spring, the House could very well approve it again. Despite setbacks and push back Smith has encountered in recent years, he seems as determined as ever and has made this a priority for his tenure as chairman.


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