By Michael Lucibella
Congress is stepping back and rethinking controversial legislation that many scientists saw as a change to how the National Science Foundation awards its grants. The leaked draft of the “High Quality Research Act” sparked controversy over fears that Congress was trying to interfere with the scientific process. The backlash within the scientific community has helped to delay action and, as APS News goes to press, the bill has yet to be introduced in the House. Congressional aides say, however, that they are continuing to work on it.
“Because of the uproar that this draft bill has caused within the scientific community…we are told that they are going ‘back to the drawing board’ to figure out what to do next,” said Jodi Lieberman, APS Senior Government Relations Specialist. She added that it was unclear whether any version of the bill will be introduced at all in the foreseeable future.
The draft legislation, which originated in the House Science Committee, would have required the Director of the National Science Foundation to certify that every grant’s research “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,” be ground-breaking, not duplicative and to solve problems that are “of the utmost importance to society at large.”
An aide from the House Science Committee said that the leaked bill was essentially a rough draft whose intent was to establish a way for the NSF to publicly explain its grant decisions. Currently the NSF does not have to explain, online or elsewhere, the reason why a research project was approved for funding. The aide said that the Committee is talking with the NSF to find a way to provide information on their website. If the NSF and House Science Committee do not come to an agreement, legislation similar to the High Quality Research Act might be introduced in the future.
“We are not interfering with the peer review process,” the aide said. “When you make those awards, justify that, in a public way.”
However science advocates feared the additional requirements would give Congress the ability to politicize science by allowing it to veto grants its members didn’t approve of. When the NSF was first chartered in 1950, it was set up with an independent board to review grants so as to eliminate political influence from funding decisions.
The leak came at a time of heightened sensitivity about Congress micromanaging scientific research. In March, Congress voted to eliminate most funding for research in political science from the NSF budget. Just two weeks before the leak, Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) held a hearing on the NSF science budget, at which he criticized a number of individual grants with seemingly frivolous sounding titles, including one about how photos portray animals in National Geographic Magazine. Smith followed up the hearing by sending a letter asking Cora Marrett, the Acting Director of NSF, to turn over the normally confidential technical reviews of five grants that Smith had “concerns” about.
The congressional aide said that the draft of the High Quality Research Act was in part a response to the Acting Director’s unwillingness to turn over the information requested.
“There were several questions that were raised about why the NSF is funding certain research grants,” the aide said, pointing to the National Geographic study. “Why is this study worth a quarter of a million dollars from the American taxpayer?”
The combined actions prompted a strong response from the scientific community worried about political interference in the NSF grant process. The bill ignited a firestorm in online forums. Three former NSF directors and three former chairs of the National Science Board signed a letter sent to the House Science Committee criticizing the draft bill. Eighteen former assistant directors of the NSF signed a separate letter of protest. Both letters said that the proposed requirements would effectively require researchers to accurately predict the outcomes of research.
“The history of science and technology has shown that truly basic research often yields breakthroughs–including new technologies, markets and jobs–but that it is impossible to predict which projects (and which fields) will do that,” said the letter signed by the former NSF directors.
The outcry over the bill touched on a larger debate about the role of the federal government in science.
“Many of us feel that the role of the federal government is to fund the basic research that no one else is going to fund,” said Neal Lane, a former Director of NSF. “Industry is not funding basic research for reasons that everyone pretty much understands.”
Lane added that industry is much more apt to fund research that can be easily turned into a commercial application.
“Maybe it’s a lot to ask and maybe it’s counterintuitive, [but] the way science works is not the way business as usual works. You have to trust, you have to look long term and you have to accept that something might not pay off for 20 years,” said Robert Eisenstein, a former Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the NSF.
In addition to fears about politicization of science, researchers said that it might cause researchers to be reluctant to pursue grants for riskier science, a trend that some claim has already begun.
“Peer review has already moved in the direction of being pretty conservative,” Lane said. “People making proposals have been shying away from being too speculative, being too bold, out of fear of being shot down in the review process.”
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Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella