U.S. Congress Wrestles over FIRST Act
May 22, 2014
Members of the Democratic Party in the U.S. House of Representatives mounted a concerted effort to stop a controversial bill that would significantly impact the scientific research funding process.
At a lengthy, at times contentious markup meeting late on 21 May, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee began marking up the "Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology" (FIRST) Act, a bill intended to fund several federal science agencies, but which has been decried by science advocates for tampering with how scientists can apply for and receive research grants.
Democrats offered eighteen amendments to the bill, designed to soften several of its more controversial provisions. Because the meeting ran long, the committee postponed voting on many of amendments and the bill overall, though it seems likely the committee will reject the majority of the Democrats' amendments.
The bill would authorize a one-year 1.5 percent increase for the National Science Foundation, NIST, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Democrats on the committee criticized the funding increase as too small.
"The overall funding levels in the bill are too low," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). "They barely keep up with inflation."
Republicans however emphasized the need to reduce the nation's deficit by cutting discretionary spending, and funding levels were above what the president asked for in his recent budget request.
"We continue to have a fundamental disagreement on funding levels and priorities at the National Science Foundation," said Rep. Lamar Smith, (R-Tex.), chair of the committee.
Most controversially, the bill would affect the NSF grant award process. It would require scientists applying for NSF grants to explain how their research would benefit the economy or national security of the United States.
"I have stressed the need for accountability and transparency," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) "Overall, the FIRST Act ensures that federally funded research is conducted in a responsible and transparent manner."
Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) expressed dismay at these requirements and that few hearings were held with scientists who would be affected by it.
"The FIRST act is an opportunity lost," Johnson said. "We have a bill before us today that projects a distrust of scientists and the scientific process."
The NSF's Directorate for Social Economic and Behavioral Sciences was targeted by the legislation for deep cuts into their research budgets. The legislation reduces funding to the directorate by 22 percent to about $200 million, reallocating the savings to the other disciplines. Another amendment, offered by Rep Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) would transfer out another $50 million from the directorate.
"The FIRST act sets a responsible course by rebalancing funding back to the physical sciences and engineering, the disciplines that create new jobs and energize economic growth," said Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.).
Democrats opposed the targeted reductions. Representative Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) compared current research that seems unorthodox but leads to discoveries down the line to Michael Faraday laying the groundwork for the modern electrical age experimenting with magnets in the early 1800s.
"If we pass this bill we would be defunding our current Michael Faradays. We would be defunding our future," Maffei said. "Congress should not allow the scientific experts to be undermined by the micromanagement of the members of congress."
Other controversial provisions included a limit on the number of NSF grants a researcher is allowed to receive in their lifetime, how long grants can be awarded for, and the number of research citations a researcher can use in their grant proposals.
The bill has had a controversial history. Numerous scientific societies and organizations, including the APS, have released statements criticizing previous iterations of the legislation.
The original version required that all NSF grants not only demonstrate that all research contribute to the nation's economic growth or national defense but also also publicly identify the staffer awarding each grant. That same draft zeroed out funding for social science research.
After a flurry of public criticism in March, the House Science, Space, and Technology subcommittee on research and technology amended the original legislation to restore some of the social economic and behavioral science research and softened some of the changes to grant reward process.
House Republicans introduced the FIRST Act in lieu of reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act, which also would have authorized spending for the Department of Energy's Office of Science. The first version of the COMPETES Act was passed in 2007, and narrowly renewed in 2010. Senate Democrats introduced a version of COMPETES authorizing a budget increase of about 5 percent through 2019 for the three science programs. However it is unclear how the House and Senate will reconcile the two bills. Democrats also introduced a COMPETES companion bill in the House, but it's been stalled in subcommittee and unlikely to advance.
The committee has not yet announced when it intends to hold votes on the proposed amendments.
Read the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology's full markup online.