Science: NSF peer review remains target for Congress

Republican legislators today reiterated their distrust of the National Science Foundation (NSF), with the science committee for the U.S. House of Representatives approving legislation that would tighten its oversight of NSF’s merit-review process. The vote is the latest twist in a bitter fight between many House Republicans and the U.S. scientific establishment over the rules of engagement on federal funding for research.

The bill (H.R. 3293), which had the support of two Democrats, is a form of déjà vu: Its two pages are ripped from a much larger bill (H.R. 1806) governing NSF’s practices that passed the House in May but has not been taken up by the Senate. Both bills would require NSF officials to explain why every grant they make is “in the national interest,” using seven criteria that range from “increased economic competitiveness” to “promotion of the progress of science.”

The committee’s chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), said during today’s markup of the bill that he has reviewed several dozen “questionable” grants that do not meet that definition. Smith’s list includes many grants for political and social science studies, as well as environmental research. Smith said his goal is to “assure U.S. taxpayers that their money is spent only on high-priority research.”


Most Democrats on the committee, however, think that Smith’s real motive is to suppress research that he dislikes. “The clear intent of the bill is to require NSF to fund what chairman Smith thinks should or should not be funded,” said the top Democrat on the panel, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX).

The debate has lost none of its vitriol since Smith became chairman of the science committee in early 2013 and immediately began to characterize some NSF-funded research as “frivolous and wasteful.” Earlier versions of what the committee approved today have been subject to withering criticism from the research community, including presidential science adviser John Holdren. But this past winter, after NSF made changes in how it writes the titles and abstracts of funded projects, NSF Director France Córdova testified that the bill language was now “compatible” with NSF practices.

That concession apparently prompted two Democrats on the science committee to shift sides and join Smith in co-sponsoring H.R. 3293. “I expect that NSF will have no problem justifying virtually all of its grants” under the terms of the bill, Representative Alan Grayson (D–FL) said this morning in expressing his support. The bill, he added, “recognizes that there is such a thing as practical science that can solve problems and improve the lives of people.” (The other Democrat supporting the bill was Representative Daniel Lipinski [D–IL].)

Most of Grayson’s Democratic colleagues in the minority weren’t buying that argument, however. “Everybody here agrees that all NSF research should benefit U.S. taxpayers,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren (D–CA). “The concern is that this bill substitutes the political process for the scientific process, a step that is adverse to progress in science.”

Johnson said Smith rejected a small proposed change to the bill that would have made it palatable to her members. The language would have defined grants worthy of federal funding as those that have “met the merit review criteria of the foundation.” The additional words “tie ‘worthy’ directly to the merit-review process rather than putting it in the hands of Congress,” explained a Democratic staffer on the committee.

Johnson did not incorporate those changes into an amendment, however, and the bill passed on a voice vote. But its fate is uncertain. With huge fights looming over spending and other major issues, it’s not clear whether the bill will ever get to the House floor.