National Science Board Takes Stand Against Science Committee NSF Legislation

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Publication date: 
25 April 2014
Number: 
76

Yesterday the National Science Board released a statement criticizing key provisions in a House Science Committee bill that would reauthorize the National Science Foundation for the current year and FY 2015.  Among the Board’s concerns are provisions they fear “would compromise NSF’s ability to fulfill its statutory purpose.”  The Board also expressed reservations about “significant new burdens on scientists” and the bill’s setting of specific authorization levels for individual NSF directorates.

The Board consists of 25 members that are appointed by the president.  Its current chairman is Dan Arvizu, Director and Chief Executive of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  The Board’s website provides the following background:

“The National Science Foundation Act of 1950, which created the NSF, states that ‘The Foundation shall consist of a National Science Board ... and a Director.’ Jointly the Board and the Director pursue the goals and function of the NSF, including the duty to ‘recommend and encourage the pursuit of national policies for the promotion of research and education in science and engineering.’

“In addition, The National Science Board has two important roles. First, it establishes the policies of NSF within the framework of applicable national policies set forth by the President and the Congress. In this capacity, the Board identifies issues that are critical to NSF's future, approves NSF's strategic budget directions and the annual budget submission to the Office of Management and Budget, and approves new major programs and awards. The second role of the Board is to serve as an independent body of advisors to both the President and the Congress on policy matters related to science and engineering and education in science and engineering. In addition to major reports, the NSB also publishes occasional policy papers or statements on issues of importance to U.S. science and engineering.”

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has been developing a reauthorization bill for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology for more than a year.  The legislation is intended as a follow-on to the America COMPETES Act that was reauthorized in 2010.  A year ago the committee started a contentious process to craft a new bill.   A Republican discussion draft drew much criticism from OSTP Director John Holdren, former Foundation directors and Board chairmen, former Foundation assistant directors, and scientific organizations and universities.  A Science Committee subcommittee held a hearing on the proposed legislation in November. 

Six weeks ago action on the legislation resumed.  While the Subcommittee on Research and Technology’s consideration and approval of the bill was amicable and bipartisan in tone, with a number of amendments being accepted by voice vote, the session demonstrated that serious differences remained between Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee.    Members spoke of working together on the bill’s language before the full committee meets on the legislation.

It is against this backdrop that the Board issued its statement yesterday.  The statement is notable as the Board generally does not comment on legislative matters. The full text of this statement, as posted on its website, follows:

“Statement on the Frontiers in Innovation, Science, and Technology Act of 2014 (H.R. 4186)
April 24, 2014

“The National Science Board (NSB) appreciates the historic strong commitment of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and to the research that NSF supports. In the face of global challenges to our Nation’s scientific leadership, NSF must maintain an unwavering focus on enabling scientific breakthroughs and on supporting the next generation of scientists. These scientists’ discoveries will underpin the health of the United States long into the future, especially with respect to its economic growth, prosperity, and security.

“However, we are concerned that elements of the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act do not advance those goals. In fact, some of its provisions and tone suggest that Congress intends to impose constraints that would compromise NSF’s ability to fulfill its statutory purpose. Some elements of the bill would also impose significant new burdens on scientists that would not be offset by gains to the nation. Our greatest concern is that the bill's specification of budget allocations to each NSF Directorate would significantly impede NSF’s flexibility to deploy its funds to support the best ideas in fulfillment of its mission to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.”

“The Board agrees that accountability and transparency are foundational to any Federal agency’s mission. In the case of NSF’s grant-making processes, accountability and transparency can improve both public appreciation of science and the agency’s ability to deliver science in the national interest. Toward these ends, NSF management and the National Science Board are implementing new processes that will increase both transparency and accountability. We therefore do not see a need to impose new, more inflexible, legislated requirements on NSF and our science and engineering communities. We are concerned that the proposed new legislative requirements might discourage visionary proposals or transformative science at a time when advancing the decades-long U.S. leadership in science and technology is a top priority.

“Since 1950, NSF has delivered enormous value to U.S. taxpayers by relying on rigorous merit review to identify the most promising research ideas across all disciplines. That value is rooted in the passion, integrity, and curiosity of our nation’s scientists and engineers who conduct research with high standards of ethical conduct and accountability. Our national competitiveness, defense, and prosperity have always been and will continue to be energized by scientific leadership. Every day our researchers ask breathtaking questions about the world around us, about our genes, our brains, and about society as a whole. They are poised to take the lead in answering many of these questions, even when global collaborations are required. It is critical to our nation’s future that U.S. scientists have the freedom and flexibility necessary to pursue those leadership roles effectively.

“Generations of scientists, engineers, and public servants have shaped the National Science Foundation into an unsurpassed engine that drives economic competitiveness and national well-being through the progress of science. As stewards of this exceptional agency, which is a role model for the world, the NSB is committed to engage with the Administration and the Congress to ensure scientific progress continues for generations to come.”