Controversy on House Science Committee

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Publication date: 
2 May 2013

The Science, Space, and Technology Committee has traditionally been known as one of the most bipartisan committees in the House.  While there have been disagreements about budgets and policy – such as the 2010 reauthorization of the America COMPETES legislation – the committee has generally been able to separate itself from the atmosphere found in most committee rooms and on the House floor.  Recent developments indicate a change in this approach.

An early indication occurred last summer when the full House considered the FY 2013 appropriations bill funding the National Science Foundation.   Initial remarks from the chairmen and ranking members of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee and the House Science Committee reaffirmed the broad and bipartisan nature of congressional support for science.   That was largely reaffirmed when the House voted against an amendment to cut the foundation’s budget by $1.2 billion.   There was a definite shift when the House voted largely along party lines to eliminate funding for NSF’s Climate Change Education Program and NSF’s Political Science Program.  In response, the American Institute of Physics and several of its Member Societies were among those signing a letter sent to the Senate opposing “legislative attempts to micromanage NSF and undermine the merit review process by singling out specific programs for elimination as recently occurred in the House.” 

Early this year House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) signaled this matter was likely to resurface during this Congress.  In a February 5 speech he stated “Funds currently spent by the government on social science – including on politics of all things – would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.”   This position was reiterated in a March 1 document by House Science Committee Republicans questioning NSF funding for Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) grants.

Following the Obama Administration’s submission of its FY 2014 budget request on April 10, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee commenced a series of hearings on the agencies under its jurisdiction.  An April 17 hearing featured Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren.   Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked about focusing NSF grants on basic research that, he contended, would be more relevant to national needs. Several committee members asked about the merits of several SBE grants.  Not surprisingly, as almost every senior official from every federal agency has said, and will likely say in the future, Holdren remarked that there “was always room for improvement.”

Holdren’s words were cited in an April 25 letter from Smith to NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett.  “Based on my review of NSF-funded studies, I have concerns regarding some grants approved by the Foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF’s ‘intellectual merit’ guideline.  To better understand how NSF makes decisions to approve and fund grants, it would be helpful to obtain detailed information on specific research projects awarded NSF grants” Smith wrote.  He continued:

“According to NSF procurement guidelines, the Foundation first conducts a scientific/technical review of each grant proposal and then the NSF Program Officer writes an evaluation about whether or not to fund a given proposal.  Members of the Committee will benefit from access to the scientific/technical reviews and the Program Officers Review Analysis for the following research projects that have been awarded NSF funding . . . .”

At that point, the letter lists five SBE grants with a total value of $1.27 million.  Smith requested information within two weeks of the letter’s receipt.

At approximately the same time bill language in the form of a “Discussion Draft” was circulated, according to an April 30 Smith statement, to the committee’s Democratic staff, OSTP, and NSF.  He explained “This was a first step in what we hoped would be a bipartisan initiative to improve accountability of NSF grants.”

The proposed legislation, with a document time stamp of April 18 (a day after the OSTP hearing) is two and one-half pages long.  A key section of the “High Quality Research Act” states:

(a) “CERTIFICATION.—Prior to making an award of any contract or grant funding for a scientific research project, the Director of the National Science Foundation shall publish a statement on the public website of the Foundation that certifies that the research project—

(1) is in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

(2) is the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

(3) is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

Other provisions permit transfer of unobligated funds from unqualified to qualified projects, a required implementation report, and a report by the National Science Board of ‘its findings and recommendations on how the [above] requirements of subsection (a) are being implemented.’”  A final section requires the OSTP director to prepare a report “on how the requirements of subsection (a) [above] may be implemented in other federal agencies.”

NSF receives approximately 40,000 grant applications every year, and funds approximately 11,000 of them.

“Your letter of April 25 to the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr. Cora Marrett, has provoked me to write to you,” is the opening sentence of an April 26 letter to Smith from Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member of the Science Committee.  About Smith’s letter, Johnson wrote: “your letter marks the beginning of an investigative effort, the implications of which are profound.  This is the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely viewed as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world.”  Regarding the five named SBE grants in the Smith letter, Johnson mentioned previous chairmen she had worked with and wrote “I have never seen a Chairman decide to go after specific grants simply because the Chairman does not believe them to be of high value.”

Johnson later refers to the High Quality Research Act:

“though your document request, coupled with your ‘High Quality Research Act’ proposal, you are taking steps that could erode NSF’s 60-year old peer review process at the same time your legislative proposal would undermine NSF’s core mission as a basic research agency.  I am sure this is not your intention, but intentions do not always predict outcomes and the path you are leading the Committee onto is very dangerous.”

In concluding her letter, Johnson asks Smith to “withdraw your letter to Dr. Marrett.  I stand ready to work with you to identify a less destructive, but more effective, effort to hold NSF accountable to the requirements laid out in law.”

Smith responded to Johnson’s letter with a statement explaining:

“It is the job of Congress and the NSF to make sure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly.  I support basic research, which can lead to discoveries that change our world, expand our horizons and save lives.  For example, we should prioritize research projects like the brain mapping initiative that may help cure Alzheimer’s, autism, epilepsy, and brain injuries.

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

Later in his statement Smith charged “some have chosen to play politics and misrepresent the nature of the draft bill.”

There are reports that the House Science Committee may consider this bill next week, although the committee’s website lists no scheduled markup sessions.  Earlier this year Republican members announced “The Committee plans to reauthorize NSF for FY 2014 in the coming months.”