The requirement is similar to one in a discussion draft circulated in April by committee chairman Lamar Smith (Republican, Texas). At the time, scientists raised concerns that ‘national interest’ was defined much too narrowly. The current draft bill provides a more expansive definition that includes six goals: economic competitiveness, health and welfare, scientific literacy, partnerships between academia and industry, promotion of scientific progress and national defence.

Those criteria are in line with a ‘broader impacts’ assessment that the NSF, based in Arlington, Virginia, already requires scientists to include in their grant applications. But the bill, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2013, would place an extra burden on NSF programme directors by requiring them to publish justification for each grant award on the foundation’s website. In a time of tight budgets, says a Republican committee aide, research with a high return on investment should be prioritized. “It is the role of a government official who is using federal funds to provide the justification,” says the aide.

But former NSF programme director Scott Collins, a biologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, questions whether the national-interest provision is an appropriate use of NSF staff time. “Conducting cutting-edge science is clearly in the national interest,” he says.