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Battle Over NSF Begins

March 14, 2014

WASHINGTON -- A House of Representatives subcommittee on Wednesday advanced legislation that would keep total funding targets for the National Science Foundation at roughly their current levels but would slash the agency’s budget for social and behavioral science research.

The panel approved a bill that would authorize a $7.28 billion overall budget for the NSF in the 2015 fiscal year that begins this October, which represents a 1.5 percent increase from its current level.

The proposal, in a departure from the most recent authorizations of the NSF, also seeks to set funding targets for each individual directorate within the agency.

Congress could still set different funding levels through the appropriations process, but the authorizing legislation can set the direction for an agency. And in this case, that's a direction opposed by many researchers in fields that rely on the NSF. 

The bill would cut social and behavior science research funding to $200 million, a 22 percent decrease from its current $256 million. Republicans on the panel initially sought to cut social science research by 44 percent in the proposal, but agreed to adopt an amendment by Rep. Dan Lipinski -- the top Democrat on the panel and a former political science professor -- that restored $50 million to that research category.

STEM-related categories of research would see a boost in funding while further cuts would come from the International and Integrative Activities Directorate as well as the Geosciences Directorate, which funds climate research.

Republicans, like Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who chairs the House science committee, said that the funding levels reflect the need to emphasize “areas of science and research that are crucial to economic growth.”

Smith said there were “a number of questionable research grants” the NSF funded in recent years that “would have been better spent on higher priorities.” He cited a $50,000 study on 17th-century lawsuits in Peru and a $340,000 grant that involved early human-set fires in New Zealand as examples such "questionable" grants. 

Wendy A. Naus, the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, said the Republican proposal represents an “an effort to micromanage” the NSF and pit different scientific disciplines against each other.

“Social science is being targeted in the bill,” she said, adding that decisions about how to fund various categories of research should be left up to the NSF, not Congress.

Restrictions on Research

Research advocates, including the Association of American Universities, also balked at other provisions in the proposal that they view as unwanted political incursions into federal funding of scientific research.

The bill would also place a number of new restrictions on the NSF’s funding of research, such as requiring written justifications for why a research grant is “in the national interest.”

While most research advocates believe that supporting science is indeed in the national interest, they view requirements like this as oversimplifying the role of scientific research. They argue that basic research is needed because it contributes to breakthroughs later, even though it may not demonstrate a clear link to a particular sector of the economy in advance, for example. 

Advocates for social science research defeated a similar restriction earlier this year when the omnibus appropriations bill removed restrictions on the types of political science research that the NSF could fund. The provision, pushed by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a Republican, permitted funding only for political science research that directly promoted national security and U.S. economic interests.

Another provision in the bill dealing with public access to the results of federally funded research has drawn the ire of open-access advocates, who say it would undermine the Obama administration’s directive last year for agencies to provide access to research within a year of its publication. The legislation would, among other things, embargo scientific discoveries for up to three years after they are published.

The legislation now moves to a vote before the full House science committee. The Senate has not yet introduced NSF policy legislation. 

 

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