Congress Gearing Up to Reauthorize NSF

November 6, 2013

by Paula Skedsvold  

The House and Senate are scheduled to hold hearings this week and next to discuss the reauthorization of NSF programs. The Senate’s version of the new America COMPETES Act is not expected to offer any surprises.  In the House, however, the Science Committee’s push for accountability at science agencies is seen in some odd provisions in its draft bill. 

On Tuesday, the House Science Committee released a “discussion draft” called the FIRST (Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Sciences, and Technology) Act to the science community.. The draft emphasizes NSF’s important functions in “supporting basic research in all science and engineering disciplines.” One provision focused on the social and behavioral sciences is particularly odd, and hopefully, will be removed in either later versions of the House bill or later in conference committee. 

Specifically, Section 105 states: ”A directorate of the Foundation other than the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences may fund social and behavioral science research focused on its mission areas if such research is determined to be a higher priority than other research in that directorate’s mission portfolio.” 

In no other place in the bill does the House majority single out particular disciplines, nor does the provision make sense in light of how science progresses, the interdisciplinary work the nation needs to answer questions, or the push to use taxpayer dollars wisely.  We will make this point to lawmakers in the hopes of improving the bill.

The discussion draft from the House majority also includes provisions that are aimed at “greater accountability” in the use of federal funds for research. The draft bill would require, through legislation, an affirmative determination that the research is in the national interest; is worthy of Federal funding; and achieves one or more of the following goals:

  • Increased economic competitiveness of the U.S.;
  • Advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;
  • Development of a STEM workforce and increased public scientific literacy in the U.S.;
  • Increased partnerships between academia and industry in the U.S.;
  • Promotion of the progress of science in the U.S.; and
  • Support of the national defense.

Earlier in the year, draft legislation known as the High Quality Research Act would have required a more-limiting certification process before NSF could make an award. The science community was very strong in its opposition to the draft bill, and the current bill, while still including restrictions, provides some wiggle room for NSF in allowing the funding of grants that promote the progress of science in the U.S. The certification process that imposed restrictions on political science research, requiring it to be in the national security and economic interests of the U.S., was made law through a separate spending bill and remains in effect.

The House majority’s draft reauthorization bill also requires the NSF to provide written justification of the determination on its public website prior to any award being made, along with the name of the employee(s) who made the determination. Other provisions limit the number of citations supporting an application to five articles published by the principal investigator in peer-reviewed publications, and legislates a number of other research grant conditions.

About a week earlier, Democrats on the House Science Committee released an alternative discussion draft that would authorize five percent year over year increases for NSF.  Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson stated in releasing the Democratic version that she was concerned that “our nation’s competitiveness continues to be compromised by significant and arbitrary cuts across our discretionary budget and by year-to-year, sometimes month-to-month, uncertainty in the budget.”

The Democratic alternative also includes a strong statement of support for the social and behavioral sciences. Section 302 reads: “It is the sense of Congress that in order to achieve the its mission… the National Science Foundation must continue to support unfettered, competitive, merit-reviewed basic research across all fields of science and engineering, including the social and behavioral sciences.” It goes further to state that “the Foundation’s process for selecting proposals for funding, which includes merit review based on both intellectual merit and broader impacts, remains the gold standard for the world, and the program officers and division directors at the Foundation play an essential role in this process.”

As the House and Senate bills are taken up by the  respective Committees, science advocates will be on the lookout for amendments that unnecessarily target particular areas of science, especially the social and behavioral sciences.

In this challenging year, it appears that some of the discussions between the Chairman and NSF leaders, as well as between staff and science advocates, may have been heard. At least for now, funding for the SBE Directorate seems to be intact. Still, the draft raises some concerns and includes provisions that may hinder scientific progress, while not increasing accountability. The Senate may have to save the day again.

Discussion Draft of House Science Committee Bill »
House Science Committee Democratic Alternative »