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Rep. Lamar Smith defends tentative changes to research funding

May 01, 2013|By Morgan Little
  • House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) during a hearing on Capitol Hill. His draft bill on National Science Foundation funding was made public by Science magazine.
House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas)… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)

Republicans in Congress, long skeptical of the value of some taxpayer-supported research, have taken aim at the National Science Foundation with a bill that seeks to limit the scope of its grants.

A draft bill by House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), which was obtained by Science magazine, would require the foundation's grants to “advance the national health, prosperity or welfare” or “secure the national defense.” The current National Science Foundation criteria are broader and allow the foundation to weigh the “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts” of the proposed research. 

The bill would also require that projects are not “duplicative” of other federally funded works.

Hints of this approach could be seen in a House Science Committee hearing last month, when presidential science advisor John Holdren, National Science Foundation acting director Cora Marrett and National Science Board Chairman Dan Arvizu were grilled on the foundation's peer review practices.

Arvizu said during the hearing that Smith’s focus on national interest may “compromise the integrity of the process.”

“I think it’s a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding,” Holdren said, responding to a question from Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) about instituting proper criteria for funding decisions.

After the hearing, Smith sent a letter to Marrett requesting the documentation behind the funding of five projects.

Ranging from an analysis of animals pictured in National Geographic to a report on the International Criminal Court, all of the projects were funded by the social and behavioral wing of the National Science Foundation.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the Science Committee, asked Smith on Friday to withdraw his letter, contending that the foundation's procedures were the “gold standard for how scientific proposals should be judged and funded.”

 “Politicians, even a distinguished chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, cannot be ‘peers’ in any meaningful sense,” she said.

Smith responded to the leak of his draft bill Tuesday, saying that the discourse surrounding it was “disappointing.”

“The draft bill maintains the current peer review process and improves on it by adding a layer of accountability,” Smith said in a statement. "The intent of the draft legislation is to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent on the highest-quality research possible.”

Smith added that he intended for the draft to start a “bipartisan initiative to improve accountability of NSF grants.”

Some changes similar to those included in Smith’s draft have already been implemented, on a smaller scale, within the foundation. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) successfully included an amendment in an appropriations bill that prevents funding for the foundation’s political science program unless the research promotes “national security or economic interests.”

The flare-up over grant funding comes as the foundation is asking for a 8.4% budget increase in the 2014 fiscal year over the 2012 fiscal year, an increase of $592.69 million. Of the $7.626 billion requested, the social, behavioral and economic sciences would receive $272.35 million, or 3.6%.

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