The House Republicans’ latest bill to reauthorize science research funding makes an aggressive effort to pick and choose what science to fund, the Boston Globe reports.
The GOP’s preferred version of the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act of 2014 (otherwise known as the FIRST Act) would move about $160 million out of the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, cutting those areas by roughly 40 percent. It would also shift money out of the geoscience areas that cover oceanic and climate studies. Democrats have managed to amend the bill to lessen the cuts to 26 percent. But even that would leave spending levels well below their previous path.
“It’s the role of Congress to make sure we’re using limited federal funds for the highest priority research,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and the bill’s author, told the Globe.
Specifically, the FIRST Act is a partial reauthorization of the COMPETES Act, which was first passed by Congress in 2007, and then again 2010, and has now expired. The COMPETES Act originally set funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and two offices with the Department of Energy, but the targets were always something of a suggestion — thanks to sequestration and the general push for budget austerity over the last few years, the full funding called for by the COMPETES Act was never authorized by Congress. The FIRST Act would only cover funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, leaving the Department of Energy agencies to be tackled by separate legislation.
According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the FIRST Act gets into the weeds of how the NSF apportions its funds — something Congress hasn’t done in years. The NSF is split into different directorates, each one covering a different area: Biological Sciences (BIO), Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), Engineering (ENG), Geosciences (GEO), Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS), and Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences (SBE). The original version of the FIRST Act would’ve modestly cut GEO, which includes funding for ocean and atmospheric sciences. It would’ve cut SBE funding much more deeply.
In mid-March, Democrats pushed through an amendment to scale back the SBE cut to half of what’s pictured above.
The FIRST Act would also require the NSF to publicly justify how each grant it awards would serve the national interest. Just what that would mean has changed as the bill has been revised. And anticipating ahead of time whether any particular research project will serve the “national interest,” however defined, is an inherently difficult business.
Finally, the FIRST Act’s overall level of spending is so low it would not keep up with inflation, making it a cut in real and not just nominal terms.
The bill will be up for a vote in Smith’s committee soon. And even if it’s passed by the committee and the full Republican-controlled House, the FIRST Act would still have to survive the Democrat-controlled Senate. Nevertheless, it does offer a glimpse in Republicans’ thinking when it comes to where America’s scientific research should be going.
“For a committee that is supposed to be advancing science, we seem to be doing an awfully good job of advancing selective science,” said Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-MA), who’s also on the committee. He called the GOP bill an “opportunistic approach to defunding or attacking certain areas of science that you either don’t agree with or that you don’t want to see what the results might actually be.”