Political Science?

A recently proposed bill sparks controversy over NSF research funding criteria.

Published May 09, 2013

Political Science?

Last month, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the Committee on Space, Science, and Technology, drafted what he calls the "High Quality Research Act." The bill aims to harness the National Science Foundation's (NSF) funding decisions to the national interest. "That would be alright with me if the national interest were defined to include expanding the frontiers of knowledge, but I don't think that's what the members of Congress had in mind," said Dr. John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, at a Distinguished Lecture last week at Stevens Institute of Technology.

In fact, the bill defines appropriate science as research that hasn't received any other federal funding; that advances "the national health, prosperity, or welfare" and secures "the national defense"; and that is "groundbreaking."

Addressing the National Academy of Sciences for the organization's 150th anniversary, President Obama emphasized the need to "make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process."

What exactly does all this mean? Here's what the bill says:

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.

As ScienceInsider reports, many scientists view Rep. Smith's proposal as the next step in an effort to politicize research, following the success of the Coburn amendment in the 2013 spending bill, which yoked social and political science research to a national security and economic agenda. There have also been concerns about undermining the NSF's peer review system with the scientifically inexpert reactions of Congress to superficial assumptions about the value of research projects.

In a statement, Smith denies any Congressional micromanagement of the NSF. "It is the responsibility of the professionals at the NSF to exercise their best judgment and ensure that only proposals that benefit the taxpayer get funded. It is Congress' job to encourage accountability and make sure hard-earned taxpayers' dollars are spent in ways that benefit the American people," he says.

At the Stevens Institute of Technology lecture, Dr. Holdren countered:

"This happens about every decade. Members of Congress page through large numbers of NSF grants looking for titles that seem frivolous, and then try to assert that NSF is wasting tax payers' money...If they succeed in requiring in advance that we specify what the desired outcome and the national interest are going to be, two things are going to happen. One, you're throwing out the basic research baby with the bath water. Basic research is precisely research where you don't know where it's going, but in fact, it contributes to the expansion of knowledge which is the basis of all future applied research and development and practical innovation and products. The second thing is, if you demand to know in advance [what will be the outcome of a study], you fund nothing but very low-risk, obvious research and path-breaking, transformative research will not get funded. This is a very bad idea."

In his statement, Rep. Smith also claims, "I support basic research." However, the expectation that research be known in advance to serve any purpose, much less the simultaneously narrow and vague teleology delineated in the bill, is essentially contradictory to the concept of basic research, which by definition is undertaken without heed for potential applications. Applications may arise and prove profoundly beneficial to taxpayers, but this can take a very long time to happen (often much longer than the election cycles of politicians who might appoint themselves accountability gatekeepers). Illustratively, at an address to AAAS on May 2, Dr. Holdren "questioned whether the NSF director should have known that a grant for a project on search algorithms awarded to Larry Page and Sergey Brin before they co-founded Google would lead to a revolution in how people find information."

In fairness, subsection 3, on non-duplicative funding, merits real consideration. In this podcast, "Envy: the Cutthroat Side of Science," Dr. Harold Garner discusses the prevalence of overlapping grant applications to different funding agencies for the same research. Since 1985, Dr. Garner estimates this phenomenon has cost the government 5.1 billion dollars—a serious concern if you're trying to get as much and as efficient mileage from a limited budget as possible. While this amount constitutes a tiny percentage of the total research budget, it represents about 660 new grants a year that are not awarded while other projects are redundantly funded. "There's innovative science that will be missed because of that," says Dr. Garner. His approach to tackling this problem employs a publicly available database of "highly similar" text in scientific articles and grant applications to expose "double dipping." This is a lot more effective than mandating the NSF develop official prescience regarding the outcomes of the science it funds.

To end on a practical note, let's look at what's actually in the budget for some perspective. AAAS has charts representing the amounts allocated to basic and applied research by agency from 1976 to 2012. The split is pretty close, and pretty consistent, and is scheduled to remain so for 2014. The FY2014 budget has $33,162 million dollars slotted for basic research across all agencies, and $34,963 million for applied research (see page 9 of The 2014 Budget: A World-Leading Commitment to Science and Research). While the mission-driven nature of some of the agencies makes the purity of basic research somewhat debatable, there doesn't seem to be a looming crisis in basic research funding, so all the fuss might only amount to so much fist-waving. On the other hand, the success of the Coburn amendment does give one pause. According to AAAS R&D Budget Analysis Program Director Matt Hourihan, "the big question" is the $91 billion "gap between the administration's request and the current discretionary spending caps...Answering that question will then theoretically provide some additional insight into ... whether science has hit a speed bump or has crossed over the fiscal cliff into this austerity valley with depressed R&D funding over the next many years."


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