Science Committee Preparing Comprehensive NSF Legislation

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Publication date: 
17 March 2017
Number: 
33

The House Science Committee is currently preparing broad, new authorization legislation for NSF. At a hearing last week, committee members indicated that STEM education, ongoing oversight issues, and implementing a strong “national interest” requirement into NSF grant-making will all be on the committee's agenda. The committee is also planning to push the agency to favor engineering and the physical, biological, and computer sciences.

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The future NSF headquarters in Alexandria, Va.
This summer, the National Science Foundation will be moving to a new headquarters building in Alexandria, Va.

(Image credit – NSF)

The House Science Committee is renewing its longstanding effort to overhaul the policies governing the National Science Foundation.

In 2015, the House passed a committee bill to update the 2010 America COMPETES law. Among its provisions, that legislation required that all NSF grants serve a specific definition of the “national interest.” It also recommended directorate funding levels favoring research in physical and biological sciences, computer science, and engineering. However, the effort found little support among Democrats or in the Senate. Ultimately, some of the bill’s provisions were adapted into the bipartisan American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA), which President Obama signed on Jan. 6.

At the beginning of the current Congress, the Science Committee declared its intent to pursue a fresh NSF authorization bill, and its goals and strategy for this effort are now coming into focus.

On March 9, the committee’s Research and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing on NSF, billed as an overview of the agency’s work and of the oversight issues it is currently facing. NSF Director France Córdova and Inspector General Allison Lerner were on hand to answer questions on a range of subjects of interest to committee members. Then, on March 10, the committee submitted its annual “views and estimates” statement to the House Budget Committee, outlining the committee’s plans for NSF and other science agencies.

A second NSF hearing, dedicated to “future opportunities and challenges for science,is scheduled for March 21.

Committee seeking stricter control over NSF grant-making

At last week’s hearing, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) made clear that he regards AICA as a victory for his agenda. In his opening statement, he said that the law “affirms that research funded through the merit-review selection process must be in the national interest by meeting one of seven broader impact goals.”

The aforementioned 2015 House bill, which Smith sponsored, required NSF to determine that a grant benefits the national interest before approving it. In AICA, this language was changed to state that NSF’s existing evaluation criteria “should be used to assure that the Foundation’s activities are in the national interest” and that NSF should commit to “clear, consistent public communication regarding the national interest for each Foundation-awarded grant and cooperative agreement.”

Later, pressing his view that AICA nevertheless establishes that every grant must benefit the national interest, Smith asked Córdova how NSF is “going to enforce that national interest goal on a grant by grant basis,” and roughly how many proposals had already been rejected for not meeting that “standard.”

Córdova replied that NSF works with grant applicants to ensure they address the selection criteria, and that generally grants that find their way to division leaders for a final decision “wouldn’t go up without that kind of recommendation.” Smith thanked Córdova for her answer, but it was also evident that he expects AICA’s national interest provisions to have material consequences.

While making the most of AICA, Smith also cast it as a partial measure anticipating a “full reauthorization” for NSF. Although the broad contents of such a reauthorization remain undetermined, the new views and estimates document does say the bill will require Congress to appropriate budgets for each of NSF's directorates individually, and that 70 percent of NSF research funding should be allocated to the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, the Biological Sciences Directorate, and the Engineering Directorate.

Currently, about 65 percent of NSF’s Research and Related Activities account (which excludes major equipment and facilities construction) goes to those directorates. Thus, the legislation would at least implicitly call for reduced funding for the geosciences and the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, which the Science Committee directly targeted for cuts in its 2015 bill.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the committee’s ranking member, rejected Smith’s view that every grant should meet a national interest requirement, noting it is agency policy for grants to benefit society “in the aggregate.” She argued that, following that philosophy, NSF-funded research has long been a boon to the nation, and added that this is “as true for the social and behavioral sciences as it is for physics and engineering.” The committee Democrats’ competing views and estimates statement criticizes congressional attempts to “arbitrarily choose winners and losers in basic research” by favoring some fields over others.

Johnson urged that Congress respect the independence of NSF’s “gold standard” merit review process, and expressed her view that the original authorizing legislation for NSF has proven “remarkably durable and worth preserving.”

To date, there has been no indication of appetite in the Senate for advancing new legislation for NSF so soon after passing AICA.

STEM education remains a bipartisan interest

Aside from the partisan goals of imposing a national interest criterion and apportionment requirements on NSF grants, the new views and estimates statement also says the committee will address STEM education at the agency. These efforts would build on the bipartisan STEM Education Act, which President Obama signed in 2015.

During last week’s hearing, committee members from both parties asked a number of questions about NSF’s activities in STEM education and on STEM workforce issues. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), who chairs the Research and Technology Subcommittee, asked about cybersecurity research and education and about transitioning veterans into STEM careers. Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA) asked about NSF’s evaluation of the effectiveness of its STEM education programs. Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) asked for examples of “proven” methods of recruiting people into STEM fields. Smith asked about NSF’s research on dyslexia, which is a cause he has backed.

Rep. Susan Bonamici (D-OR) asked, as a co-chair of the STEAM Caucus, about the integration of arts and design into STEM learning. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), who with Comstock recently sponsored a pair of now-enacted bills advancing women in STEM fields, asked about NSF’s efforts to engage girls in STEM at the primary school level, and about how it scales up successful programs.

Replying to these questions, Córdova discussed existing NSF efforts, such as its INCLUDES program, and welcomed ideas for new initiatives.

Interest persists in NSF oversight issues

The hearing also addressed the agency’s handling of management and oversight issues, some of which were addressed in AICA and some not. In her testimony, Lerner focused on three current challenges: establishing accountability in large cooperative agreements, managing NSF’s rotating personnel, and policing researcher ethics.

By and large, questions from the committee focused on the ethics issue. Smith asked about the sanctions the agency imposes on researchers found to be in violation of policy, while Abraham asked about NSF’s implementation of Lerner’s earlier recommendations on the issue. Researcher ethics is an ongoing concern, and ScienceInsider has published a fuller discussion of recent debates about NSF’s ethics policy, focusing especially on whether NSF should make sanctioned researchers’ names public.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), the ranking member of the committee’s Oversight Subcommittee, likewise asked about ethics violations discovered by the agency. But he also asked Lerner about how NSF determines how many of its positions it should fill with rotating personnel from universities, and Córdova about NSF’s moves toward demanding that recipients of management fees from NSF be required to report other sources of revenue.

Lerner demurred on the former question, saying that how NSF strikes that balance is not within her purview. On the latter, Córdova replied that NSF does conduct spot checks on fee recipients’ revenue sources but that it does not have the personnel to do continuous monitoring.

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