Members of the House science committee want to gain greater control of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) decision making process, in hopes they can influence how the federal agency awards its funds.
Earlier this month, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, authored the High Quality Research Act, a draft bill that would require the NSF to publicly certify that each project it funds, along with meeting the agency’s current standards of intellectual merit and broader societal impacts, meets three additional criteria:
1. [The project] is in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
2. is the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
3. is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.
The draft bill provides no clarification as to how a project should be judged by these criteria — there are no explanations as to what qualifies as “finest quality” or whether “duplicative” refers to the need to prevent the federal government from paying for the same research projects twice, or whether the committee believes any project that is similar to another, already funded project should not receive funding. And the bill doesn’t stop at politicizing the decisions of the NSF. It also goes on to state that, after it’s put in place, other federal science agencies should adopt the same standards.
In addition to authoring the legislation, Smith wrote a letter last week to the director of the NSF, expressing his concerns over specific projects funded by the agency and requesting access to the agency’s reviews of the projects. The letter drew the ire of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the science committee’s top Democrat. In a letter to Smith, Johnson asks that he withdraw his request for NSF review documents and cautions that “the moment you compromise both the merit review process and the basic research mission of NSF is the moment you undo everything that has enabled NSF to contribute so profoundly to our national health, prosperity, and welfare.”
This is not the first time that congressional Republicans have taken aim at the NSF’s funding process. Last month, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) attached an amendment to Senate legislation that banned the NSF from funding any political science projects in 2013 unless they promoted “national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The amendment was approved and the legislation, which kept the federal government running past March 27, was passed. Smith’s draft bill, along with Coburn’s — and other Republicans’ — historic skepticism of the NSF add evidence to an increasing number of voters’ attitudes that the party is anti-science.