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Society for Social Studies of Science

4S News

NSF Funding Threat: Frontiers of Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act

06/16/2014

As many U.S. members of 4S are aware, a bill currently under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives would alter basic structures of the National Science Foundation and set specific budgets for each directorate. At the request of President Gary Downey, this message is intended to inform 4S members of several key features of the bill. 

The Frontiers of Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST) (H.R. 4186.IH) is sponsored by Rep. Larry Bucshon (Republican-Indiana), chair of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology. It recently passed the subcommittee and the full Science, Space, and Technology Committee chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (Republican-Texas) on party-line votes (complete text of the bill is available at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c113:H.R.4186). My understanding from a conversation with a knowledgeable source is that the bill was co-written by Smith and Bucshon. The Act is intended to replace the America Competes Act passed in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010. The bill currently awaits action by the full House. 

While it is important to consider the bill in its entirety, there are several features directly relevant to the STS community, both for their intersection with our subject of study and potential impacts on funding for (primarily) U.S.-based researchers. In general, FIRST is represented by proponents as a bill to better serve taxpayers by reducing wasteful spending at NSF while targeting research directly to the “national interest.” Overall funding levels would be targeted towards NSF directorates that have a higher probability of driving “future economic growth” and making the U.S. more globally competitive. 

The knowledgeable source indicated that the committee had recommended that NSF work to make its funded projects more accessible and responsive to the public about a year ago, but that NSF personnel had told them that they were already doing so. In his view, some of the components of the bill were to “send a message” to NSF. According to this source, NSF program officers should be able to describe to the public in 25 words or less why a project is important and warrants the requested budget. The existing public abstract system at NSF, in the Committee’s view, has not been effective in achieving this transparency.

Several features of FIRST have been challenged by practicing scientists and Democratic members on the committee, as well as generating more widespread controversy. The bill includes language that sets specific funding levels for each NSF research directorate. According to the source, the Committee chose to return to a model where specific funding levels are set for directorates, authorized by Congress’ responsibility for taxpayer money.

The winners and losers are clear. The physical sciences, engineering, and computer science are seen as the disciplines (along with STEM education) that drive future economic growth and are most in line with the national interest. A big loser is the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (where the STS program is located), which would see its budget cut from $254 million in 2012 to $150 million (41% cut) for each of years 2014 and 2015. SBE’s request for 2014 was $272 million, a 7.1% increase from 2012. Although a Democratic member of the Subcommittee added $50 million to this total in an amendment that passed, the $50 million was then stripped in the full committee by an amendment offered by Dana Rohrabacher (Republican-California). 

The source indicated that SBE was targeted because, in the Committee’s view, there were a larger number of questionable grants in SBE, and cuts needed to be made somewhere to accommodate directorates that were deemed more likely to generate U.S. technological and economic development. It also was implied that SBE might have been targeted due to the interpretation that some SBE grants were politically motivated. Examples of questionable grants provided by this source included a focus group study of the use of the filibuster and a study of more effective ways of communicating climate change to the public. 

When I asked the source whether the Committee had the intent of pressuring NSF into self-censorship, he indicated that that was not the case. He agreed that a scientifically sound study of the communication of climate change to the public, for example, would not be perceived as inherently political.

Another feature of FIRST that is potentially controversial and of interest to STS researchers is the addition of a further layer of review. NSF officials would need to provide written justification for each funded project that it “is worthy of Federal funding” and “is in the national interest.” The former would emerge out of the regular peer review process that evaluates proposals for intellectual merit and broader impacts. The latter determination would occur after the regular peer review. As the bill was considered in subcommittee, the “national interest” was expanded to include the following categories: “increased economic competitiveness in the United States,” “advancement of the health and welfare of the American public,” “developmet of a STEM workforce and increased public scientific literacy in the United States,” “increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States,” “support for the national defense of the United States,” or “promotion of the progress of science in the United States.” 

I questioned the source about whether any particular NSF grant could ever miss one of these categories. According to him, the intent with this language is not to hold up any specific grant but simply to require that each grant be certified so that tax payers can be certain that it is money well spent. At the same time, he provided several examples of research projects that he felt involved money poorly spent.

FIRST also would require timely and free on-line access to materials generated through projects funded by any federal agency. These would include research articles within two years of peer-reviewed publication and data used to support findings and conclusions within 60 days after publication. An exception would be made for data protected from disclosure under section 552 of title 5 of the U.S. Code http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/5/552).

To protect against scientific misconduct, FIRST would add the requirement that each principal investigator (PI) sign a statement certifying that publications under the grant (authored by the PI) are free of falsification or fabrication and plagiarism. If the Inspector General of NSF later determines that misconduct knowingly occurred, the PI would face a 5-10 year ban from further funding, subject to appeal.

The Act also would require that PIs who have received more than five years of funding over their career from NSF (with the exception of graduate student support) could only be funded for future research if they will be contributing “original, creative, and transformative research.”

The current situation -- after this was written -- is that the House took up a separate appropriations bill for NSF and approved it. Lamar Smith made a procedural amendment to reduce SBE by about $15 million but then add it back in, and it barely passed the House. The Senate passed a separate appropriations bill and the final conference committee bill will unlikely contain any targeted appropriations for SBE. The First Act is still sitting there. It's unclear what will become of it. For that reason, some of the sentiment among Republicans in the committee (expressed by the staff member) is important for future reference/concern, etc.

Stephen Zehr
4S Secretary