Bid to impose ‘national interest’ test on research

The United States House of Representatives approved legislation on Wednesday that would require the National Science Foundation, or NSF, to award grants only for research projects that the agency can certify as being in the national interest.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

The Republican-written measure (HR 3293), passed on a nearly party-line vote of 236 to 178, would set a series of broad yardsticks by which the "national interest" could be defined, such as improving American economic health or strengthening national defence.

It marked the latest Republican attempt to limit scientific freedom at the NSF, which receives more than US$7 billion a year in taxpayer support. The measure "ensures the grant process at the National Science Foundation is transparent and accountable to the American people", said the bill’s sponsor, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House science committee.

One of the seven qualifying definitions of national interest in the bill’s original language would allow grants that further the "promotion of the progress of science for the United States". Two additional conditions, added as a result of amendments offered by Democrats, would allow grants that are consistent with widely accepted scientific methods and with common understandings of basic research.

Still, Democrats largely rejected the legislation, citing fears that any such terms raise the spectre of political interference in the NSF’s decades-old tradition of using panels of fellow scientists to determine which research projects are most worthy of federal grant money.

'Anti-science' legislation

It’s "another anti-science piece of legislation", said one opponent, Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts. "There isn’t really even a thin veil trying to cover up what this is." McGovern complained that House Republican leaders allowed votes on only six possible Democratic amendments to the bill, out of more than 30 that party members proposed.

One of only seven House Democrats to vote in favour of the final bill, Representative Dan Lipinski of Illinois, suggested Republicans were paying the price for more-aggressive versions of the legislation they have proposed in recent years.

"The debate around this bill has focused less on the language of this bill and more on the concern of intentions behind the bill," Lipinski said during the floor debate.

One such previous attempt by Smith, a 2014 bill known as the First Act, would have gone beyond national-interest declarations to impose division-by-division limits on spending at the NSF, with especially deep cuts in the social sciences.

The floor debate on Wednesday was a throwback to such past showdowns, in which Republicans insisted they had no intention of imposing political beliefs on NSF grant reviews, while listing an array of grants they denounced as obviously not worthy of taxpayer money.

Examples cited on Wednesday by Smith included studies of Icelandic textiles, fires in New Zealand, and Chinese immigration to Italy. Many of the studies on his list concerned climate change.

And Democrats, as before, ridiculed the folly of politicians' assuming they could predict what lines of scientific inquiry might have long-term value. One, Representative Ted Lieu of California, said a study of what may have seemed like "funny-looking clay" in France later led to an important antibacterial agent. "This is an arrogant bill that says, 'We know best'," Lieu said.

None of Smith’s legislative attempts to put national-interest conditions on NSF grants have passed Congress, and President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the current version if it wins Senate approval.

The bill "would add nothing to accountability in federal funding for scientific research, while needlessly adding to bureaucratic burdens and overhead at the NSF", the Obama administration said on Tuesday in a position statement.

More difficult to veto

Yet the bill’s language might eventually reach the president in a form he might find more difficult to veto, as Congress may include it in a pending reauthorisation of the America Competes Act, which sets overall policy and priorities for federal spending on science.

And the House Republican efforts already have had an effect at the NSF, which last year began applying a version of a "national interest" requirement to its grant process. Representative Smith repeatedly told lawmakers that the move by the NSF suggests the agency’s director, France A Córdova, already backs the underlying concept, which he now seeks only to enshrine in law.

An NSF spokeswoman on Wednesday disputed that interpretation, saying the agency stands by the administration’s statement threatening a veto of the bill. "The director has never indicated that this legislation is needed, nor has she ever explicitly endorsed it," said the spokeswoman, Sarah Bates.

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at paul.basken@chronicle.com.