U.S. House and NSF Discussing Accountability

May 29, 2013

by Paula Skedsvold

For years now, the SBE sciences have been a favorite target on Capitol Hill. In the 113th Congress, there remain serious concerns about potential threats to SBE, but now the broader scientific community is also facing challenges on the Hill.

Earlier this year, an amendment that required certification for NSF-funded political science research was substituted for one that would eliminate all political science research funding at the agency. Since it was attached to a must-pass spending bill, there was no last-minute alternative. Also in early 2013, the House Majority Leader and Science Committee Chair questioned the use of federal funds for social science research, calling for the money to be spent on medical research or “higher priority scientific endeavors.” 

Later the House Science Committee Chair questioned the funding of five specific social science grants, specifically requesting access to the scientific reviews and program officers’ review analysis. The Ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee responded that the letter “is a first step on a path that would destroy the merit-review process at NSF.” Indeed, NSF responded that it would not provide the materials, but expressed interest in working with the Committee to explain the process for funding the grants.

At about the same time, the House Science Committee Chair prepared a draft bill that would restrict all basic science research at NSF in much the same way as with political science. Called the “High Quality Research Act,” it would require the NSF Director to certify that NSF-funded projects meet national health, prosperity, welfare, or defense interests of the country; is not duplicative of other federally-funded projects; and is “of the finest quality,” “groundbreaking,” or “solves problems that are of the utmost importance to society.” The draft bill is creating a great deal of anxiety for the broad scientific community. 

Amidst the accountability debate, the President and his science advisor, John Holdren, have provided strong statements of support for science, including the SBE sciences. Likewise, other science policy leaders have defended the SBE sciences in creating Guiding Principles to assist Congress as it reauthorizes NSF. Former NSF Directors and Assistant Directors have also sent letters to the House Science Committee, as have scientific societies which track policies and funding related to NSF.

Recently, majority staff for the House Science Committee met with representatives of numerous scientific societies. Staff stated that the goal was to “clear the policy underbrush” so that the NSF budget could be defended – and to do so before the America COMPETES Act (or at least NSF’s portion) is considered by the Committee. The COMPETES bill will reauthorize programs at NSF and other science agencies. According to staff, the Chairman is being questioned about individual grants and whether they are the best use of taxpayer dollars. 

The High Quality Research Act, according to staff, would not undermine peer review, but instead ensure accountability at NSF by requiring program officers, division directors, and management at NSF to certify the grants – after peer review. In addition, although staff did not specifically discuss the SBE sciences, there was reference to the NSF’s priorities in physical science, mathematics, and engineering.

The debate about accountability at NSF remains an open issue. House Science Committee staff seemed reluctant to change the certification provisions in the High Quality Research Act and warned that, without certification, there could be concerns with the NSF budget. Meanwhile, staff stated that there are active discussions with the National Science Board Chair, NSF Director, and President of the Association of American Universities. 

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