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A new policy of the U.S. 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.
March 13, 2015 | Michael Lucibella
In December 2014, NSF formally adopted new rules requiring non-technical explanations and justifications for new grants.
The new requirements update the NSF’s Transparency and Accountability policy. Future grants will require a nontechnical description of the project, an explanation of its significance, and how it contributes to the NSF’s mission, including promoting the progress of science.
At a subcommittee hearing in February, Chair Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) highlighted the similarities between these 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. “A requirement that NSF publish a justification for each funded grant that sets forth the project’s scientific merit and national interest.”
Though similar, the requirements outlined in the FIRST Act explicitly highlighted the need for a grant to promote the country’s economy or national defense. “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,” NSF director France Cordova said at the committee meeting. The National Science Foundation declined to comment for this article.
Tensions between the committee and the NSF have been simmering since April of 2013 when the Republican-led committee started requesting NSF documents about its grant review process. At the time, 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.
However 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 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 and the future of dioramas in museum exhibits, the most recent crop of requests includes research aimed at protecting power grids against cyber attacks, detecting malware, and mitigating the effect of space weather on the global positioning system (GPS). It also requested no new documents from any grants out of 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 information on it. They’re broadening their scope 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 than 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 looking at. He researches the 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 looked at, 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.”