April 28, 2014
When government committees set budgets for organizations they oversee, one might expect some pushback now and again. When the committee overseeing the National Science Foundation proposed new legislation exerting more government control over how funds could be used, however, the foundation's board did somethingScienceInsider called "unprecedented": It criticized the move in a very public way.
Last week, the NSF board published a five-paragraph statement on its website questioning legislation proposed by U.S.Representative Lamar Smith, R-Texas, last month called the Frontiers in Innovation, Science, and Technology Act, or FIRST. Smith is chair of the House science committee overseeing the NSF; the committee that makes budget recommendations to the NSF each year. What makes FIRST different from past recommendations is that it sets funding levels for each directorate within the agency, which, according to Inside Higher Ed, can effectively steer the direction of agency research. Of particular concern to the NSF is a 22 percent cut to social and behavioral science research.
In its statement, the NSF board suggested that FIRST would "impose significant new burdens on scientists that would not be offset by gains to the nation." It said it was concerned that the new legislative requirements could "discourage visionary proposals or transformative science" at a time when advancing U.S. leadership in the fields of science and technology "is a top priority."
ThoughScienceInsiderreported that the NSF statement marks the only time the board has openly questioned the congressional committee, it is not the only group to do so. When FIRST was proposed last month, Wendy A. Naus, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, told Inside Higher Ed that the proposal was "an effort to micromanage" the NSF and pit scientific disciplines against one another.She said funding decisions regarding specific categories of research should be left up to the NSF, not Congress. The Association of American Universities also disapproved of some of FIRST's provisions, reported the publication, calling them unwelcome political incursions into federal funding of scientific research.
According to ScienceInsider, Smith maintained that new requirements under FIRST would bring more transparency and accountability to the NSF's grantmaking process and would help direct funding toward areas that drive economic growth. He further mentioned that he doubts the sincerity of the NSF's statement.
"After a year of the National Science Foundation (NSF) resisting calls for more public accountability, the agency's last-minute announcement of a new internal policy is too little too late," Smith wrote. "The internal policy would continue to allow the NSF to evade responsibility for their decisions to fund questionable grants. The NSF wants to be the only federal agency to get a blank check signed by taxpayers, without having to justify how the money is spent."
FIRST is an authorization bill, meaning it can only recommend spending levels, reportedScienceInsider. It is expected to be adopted by the full science committee sometime next month.
Compiled by Aimee Hosler
"Battle Over NSF Begins," insidehighered.com, March 14, 2014, Michael Stratford,http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/03/14/house-subcommittee-approves-bill-would-cut-nsf-social-science-research#sthash.rQwqAKes.bumUnWot.dpbs
"National Science Board Statement on the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act of 2014 (H.R. 4186)," nsf.gov, April 24, 2014,http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=131218&org=NSB&from=news
"NSF's Science Board Criticizes Bill to Alter Agency's Programs," news.sciencemag.org, April 24, 2014, Jeffrey Mervis,http://news.sciencemag.org/funding/2014/04/nsfs-science-board-criticizes-bill-alter-agencys-programs