House Bill Challenges NSF Focus on Basic Research

House Bill Challenges NSF Focus on Basic Research

BY IEEE-USA Staff Posted: 3 Mar 2016

On 10 February, the House of Representatives passed by a 236-178 vote the Scientific Research in the National Interest Act (H.R. 3293), which would require that all National Science Foundation peer reviewed research grants bear a written determination by a responsible NSF authority that the funded research is consistent with NSF’s mission and furthers the national interest. 

According to the bill, the national interest requirement must be attested to in terms of its potential to increase U.S. economic competitiveness, advance the public health and welfare, develop the STEM workforce, increase public scientific literacy and engagement, enhance industry-academic partnerships, support national defense, and/or promote the progress of science for the United States.

The bill was introduced by Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, who provided the following rationale for the legislation:   “America’s future economic growth and national security depend on innovation.  Public and private investments in research and development (R&D) fuel the economy, create jobs and lead to new technologies that benefit Americans’ daily lives. Unfortunately, in recent years, the federal government has awarded too many grants that few Americans would consider to be in the national interest.”

Over the past two years, Chairman Smith’s has employed committee staff to closely scrutinize NSF funding grants, criticizing decisions to fund a number of projects, including a climate change-themed musical, a study into the Viking-era textile industry in Iceland, a study into early human-set fires in New Zealand, a study on ancient Mayan architecture and their salt industry, and an experiment in crowdsourcing development of a video game.

According to Smith, “When the NSF funds such projects there is less money to support worthwhile scientific research that keeps our country on the forefront of innovation. “

Smith also suggested that funding priority should go to such areas as “computer science, advanced materials, lasers, telecommunications, information technology, development of new medicines, nanotechnology, cybersecurity and dozens of others that hold the greatest promise of revolutionary scientific breakthroughs. These sectors can create millions of new jobs and transform society in positive ways.”

According to Smith, the bill “ensures that a project’s benefits are clearly communicated to earn the public’s support and trust.  Researchers should embrace the opportunity to better explain to the American people the potential value of their work. This bill is an essential step to restore and maintain taxpayer support for basic scientific research.”

Critics of the bill in the science community suggest that it would steer NSF away from its traditional mission of support for basic research toward a more applied research agenda.

House action on the bill also drew an immediate veto threat from the White House, based on concerns that:  “Contrary to its stated purpose, H.R. 3293 would add nothing to accountability in Federal funding for scientific research, while needlessly adding to bureaucratic burdens and overhead at the NSF.  And, far from promoting the progress of science in the United States, it would replace the clarity of the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 with confusing language that could cast a shadow over the value of basic research which, by its nature, will have outcomes with contributions to national interests other than the progress of science which cannot be predicted in advance.”

John Holdren, the President’s Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, critiqued the bill in a public comment, noting NSF’s key role in promoting the progress of science and suggesting that the bill was both unnecessary and potentially damaging. 

According to Holdren, “It is unnecessary because its ostensible aims are already met by the existing process.  According to the clear wording and intent of the 1950 Act, promoting the progress of science through basic research is in the national interest.  And the NSF’s merit-review process is designed to, and does, determine which proposals for such research are most worthy of Federal funding.  No further certification of national interest and worthiness is required beyond a proposal’s having survived the NSF’s merit-review process.”

He also noted that “most of the criteria offered by the bill for determining whether an award for basic research is in the national interest are not applicable to basic research at all—they relate to whether the research will increase economic competitiveness, increase health and welfare, strengthen the national defense, and so on, and, thus, they are applicable only to applied research.  Is it possible that the drafters do not understand that basic research entails the pursuit of scientific understanding without anticipating any particular benefit?”

He also reinforced the value and importance of basic research, noting that “History has shown, of course, that basic research often leads to results with immensely beneficial consequences for specific aspects of societal well-being, but it is precisely the character of such research that these cannot be predicted and offered as an a priori justification for doing the research.  Who would have initially predicted, for example, that genomic studies of nematode worms would lead to the discovery of genes that control cell death and, in turn, to new treatment possibilities for cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease?  Or that the quest to understand atomic physics would lead to the development of the atomic clocks that now enable the highly precise Global Positioning System (GPS) on which so many Americans rely?”

Hence, according to Holdren, “by muddling the distinction between research aimed solely at promoting the advance of science, on the one hand, and applied research carried out with immediate practical benefits for societal well-being as the aim, on the other, H.R. 3293 would create doubt at NSF and in the research community about Congress’s real intent in calling into question the adequacy of NSF’s gold-standard merit-review process, for applied as well as for basic research.  This could not only have a chilling effect on the total amount of basic research that scientists propose and that NSF chooses to fund, but it would also be likely to reduce the amount of high-risk/high-return research proposed and funded in both the basic and applied domains.” 

Following passage in the House, the bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions for further consideration.

For more information, see:

Rep. Smith Press Release: https://science.house.gov/news/press-releases/house-votes-open-accountable-science

Statement of Administration Policy on H.R. 3293:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/legislative/sap/114/saphr3293r_20160209.pdf

Holdren Statement:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/02/10/comment-hr-3293

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