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By Michael Lucibella
A new policy of the National Science Foundation (NSF) might settle the ongoing feud between the funding agency and the House of Representatives Science Committee over Congressional oversight of its grant-award process. In December 2014, NSF formally adopted new rules requiring non-technical explanations and justifications for new grants.
The new requirements update NSF’s Transparency and Accountability policy. Future proposals must include a nontechnical description of the project, an explanation of its significance, and a statement of how the project carries out NSF’s mission, including the advancement of science.
At a subcommittee hearing in February, Chair Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) highlighted the similarities between these new requirements and ones in the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act, commonly known as the FIRST Act, which was introduced in the House in March of last year but never passed.
“It appears the new NSF policy parallels a significant provision of the FIRST Act approved by this committee last fall,” Smith said. At the hearing, NSF director France Córdova stated, “We completely agree that [it] is very important that the public understands the investment that this country is making in science and engineering and STEM education.”
Though similar to NSF’s new approach, the requirements outlined in the FIRST Act also explicitly highlighted the need for a grant to promote the country’s economy or national defense. Smith referred to “… [a] requirement that NSF publish a justification for each funded grant that sets forth the project’s scientific merit and national interest.”
The National Science Foundation declined to comment for this article.
Tensions between the committee and NSF have been simmering since April 2013, when the Republican-led committee started requesting NSF documents about its grant review process. At the time, committee chair Smith called a number of the awards “questionable,” and his requests focused primarily on grants from the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, as well as grants related to climate change.
More recently, the committee seems to have expanded the scope of its inquiries. The committee’s latest request for information targets more physical science, math, and engineering grants than before. In mid-February, the committee requested information about the grant review process for 13 grants from across the foundation’s research programs.
In addition to grants about climate change, the most recent group of targeted grants includes research aimed at protecting power grids against cyber attacks, detecting malware, and mitigating the effect of space weather on the global positioning system. Beyond the sciences, the committee requested no new documents from any grants in the social, behavioral, and economic directorate.
According to a committee aide who asked not to be identified, a grant shouldn’t necessarily be considered “questionable” just because the committee requested more information on it. He said the committee is broadening the scope of information requested in order to get a better handle on the more technical grants.
“Because composition of an understandable, non-technical description may be more difficult for complex projects and perhaps particularly difficult for some projects in the physical sciences, the committee wanted to look at complex projects from each NSF research directorate,” the aide said in an email.
Allan Weatherwax, a plasma physicist at Siena College in New York, finds this explanation plausible. He said that if he were to put together a cross-section of NSF grants, the lineup might not look that different from what the committee selected. “It’s an eclectic list,” Weatherwax said. “I looked at them and I saw no common theme in the proposals.”
His is one of the proposals that the committee is currently reviewing. He researches Earth’s magnetic fields around the poles and how the aurora can sometimes disrupt GPS systems. Though initially surprised to hear that his grant was being reviewed, he’s not concerned about the inquiry or any potential effects it might have on his reputation. “I’m using taxpayers’ dollars, and I think our work is outstanding,” Weatherwax said. “It’s [Congress’s] prerogative to review our work.”
Alexander Teplyaev, a professor of mathematics at the University of Connecticut, thinks it was likely random chance that his research on fractals caught the eye of the committee. “I don’t have specific reasons to be concerned because of this investigation,” Teplyaev said in an email. “I had to reevaluate what I am doing, and I feel [I] am still on [the] right track.”
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