Battle between NSF and House science committee escalates: How did it get this bad?

Oct 7, 2014

Image credit: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

By Jeffrey Mervis

Four times this past summer, in a spare room on the top floor of the headquarters of the National Science Foundation (NSF) outside of Washington, D.C., two congressional staffers spent hours poring over material relating to 20 research projects that NSF has funded over the past decade. Each folder contained confidential information that included the initial application, reviewer comments on its merit, correspondence between program officers and principal investigators, and any other information that had helped NSF decide to fund the project.

The visits from the staffers, who work for the U.S. House of Representatives committee that oversees NSF, were an unprecedented—and some say bizarre—intrusion into the much admired process that NSF has used for more than 60 years to award research grants. Unlike the experts who have made that system work so well, however, the congressional staffers weren’t really there to judge the scientific merits of each proposal. But that wasn’t their intent.

The Republican aides were looking for anything that Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), their boss as chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, could use to support his ongoing campaign to demonstrate how the $7 billion research agency is “wasting” taxpayer dollars on frivolous or low-priority projects, particularly in the social sciences. The Democratic staffers wanted to make sure that their boss, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the panel’s senior Democrat, knew enough about each grant to rebut any criticism that Smith might levy against the research.

The peculiar exercise is part of a long-running and bitter battle that is pitting Smith and many of his panel’s Republican members against Johnson and the panel’s Democrats, NSF’s leadership, and the academic research community. There’s no end in sight: The visits are expected to continue into the fall, because NSF has acceded—after some resistance—to Smith’s request to make available information on an additional 30 awards. (Click here to see a spreadsheet of the requested grants.)

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13 comments on “Battle between NSF and House science committee escalates: How did it get this bad?

  • 1
    permafrost says:

    This man seems concerned about how taxpayers’ money is spent on science. I presume, though, that he is OK with any crazy church making millions and paying no taxes at all.

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  • permafrost Oct 8, 2014 at 3:37 am

    This man seems concerned about how taxpayers’ money is spent on science.

    … and it is well known that Republicans love wasting billions of taxpayers’ money on half baked military research, munitions, and military adventures.

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  • Smith’s political rhetoric is that he believes straightened times mean that a focus on STEM (Science & Technology) research will give better returns.

    The obvious parallel to draw is that Smith, we must conjecture among others, thinks that the best way to manage research is to think of it like business investment. Each research project, I would presume, is to Smith and his ilk like a business plan. They wish to judge scientific research on the number of dollars that are likely to be returned for the ‘investment’ that is put into each project.

    For reasons of dogma – I assume, as no evidence is being presented to support the argument – the Sith cohort do not believe that human well-being extends beyond a bigger TV with a telephone and credit card for immediate access to advertised goods and a 10-hour-a-day job to pay for it.

    The idea that a better understanding of the human condition might lead to better government and greater human happiness is, of course, dismissed by many – if not most – politicians of the early 21st C. To think like that means to tie the hands of politicians ahead of social policy decisions – like the advisable length of the working day, minimum wages and [gasp!] holidays.

    As someone who has had to judge between business plans I have to say the analogy, in any case, stinks to the very heavens. Nearly all forms of investment are, at some level, subjective and all are exposed to forces that are very difficult to forecast (if it was easy, we’d all be millionaires by now).

    The Economist has regularly reported on studies that highlight how no single investor, or fund manager, has a unblemished track record in picking winners.

    But science doesn’t work like that. Any good scientific research will advance overall human understanding. Often such understanding helps us in ways that were impossible to predict – ahead of the research. In other words; there is always a return, and assigning a dollar value would be meaningless.

    Which begs the question: Why does Smith (or, indeed, any politician) believe he is qualified to second-guess the NSFs rigor?

    In addition, we must consider that many advances in human wellbeing have been the consequences of social science study. I am among the most vocal of the critics of social science – much of which does not, it seems to me, deserve the name science. Nevertheless, even I am prepared to concede that social work based on well-founded social and psychological premises is a step up for modern society.

    Social Workers are gainfully employed people. Ergo; social science studies lead to job creation. QED.

    Finally: I am (I hope) not overly impressed by tradition. Even so, I have to question why a system that the vast majority of scientists from all branches agree has worked, and worked well, for the last 60 years is suddenly questionable.

    Smith needs to feel the annoyance of voters who love science – not only for its economic potential, but also for its humanity and, even, for its own sake.


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  • What infuriated me about this article; to the point that after a paragraph I decided not to bother to read it, was the lazy not to say arrogant practice of assuming that the entire world readership is familiar with American acronyms. Even if the article was only intended for American readership it is still bad practice to use an acronym without first spelling it out in full in the first instance of its use.
    So (excuse me for joining in) WTF is NSF?
    Now I’m a bit ashamed of myself for being pedantic and wondering whether the issues were so important that I would have been justified in doing a search to find out just what the acronym stood for.

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  • National Science Foundation. It’s expanded in the second line.

    I agree the website has become increasingly US-centric. I particularly like the headline the other day: “Can atheists be elected” ? Uhm it’s been happening in my country for years.

    But you have to admit there is a job to be done in the US and if they can win there it might stop the right wing Christian loonies spreading into our countries.

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  • It is just amazing that people with a second grader’s understanding of science imagine they know far more than those with PhDs. The hubris is astounding.

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  • You all use WiFi. Right. WiFi was invented by an astronomer doing pure physics research on black holes. He was dealing with very weak signals and wanted some software to “filter” out the noise. He wrote his own software. Probably an unremarkable talent among scientists. It worked well. In discussion with another, the idea of using this to send out weak signals from a modem and have the software do the error checking and compilation came up. A bit more science and tech stuff on the side an they invented WiFi. Now world wide patent and of great use to everyone, including people who frequent Starbucks.

    This from Wikipedia.

    The Australian radio-astronomer John O’Sullivan developed a key patent used in Wi-Fi as a by-product in a CSIRO research project, “a failed experiment to detect exploding mini black holes the size of an atomic particle”.[7] In 1992 and 1996, Australian organization CSIRO (the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) obtained patents[8] for a method later used in Wi-Fi to “unsmear” the signal.[9]

    Smith would have rejected the astronomers research request to look at black holes because you can’t make any money out of stuff like that. As Stephen of Wimbledon pointed out. We are not good at picking winners. Every Starbucks table would have 4 LAN cable points if WiFi had not been invented and we would all be walking around with half metre LAN cables in our pockets.

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  • Atheos Oct 10, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    The only “good” science to them is the “wrath of god” or smiting science.

    You give religions more than $82.5 billion a year

    .. . . . . and that is one of their lesser sins!

    @OP – The Republican aides were looking for anything that Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), their boss as chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, could use to support his ongoing campaign to demonstrate how the $7 billion research agency is “wasting” taxpayer dollars on frivolous or low-priority projects, particularly in the social sciences.

    Let’s get things into proportion!

    The decade-long American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would end up costing as much as $6 trillion, the equivalent of $75,000 for every American household, calculates the prestigious Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

    Remember, when President George Bush’s National Economic Council Director, Lawrence Lindsey, had told the country’s largest newspaper “The Wall Street Journal” that the war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion, he had found himself under intense fire from his colleagues in the administration who claimed that this was a gross overestimation.

    Consequently, Lawrence Lindsey was forced to resign. It is also imperative to recall that the Bush administration had claimed at the very outset that the Iraq war would finance itself out of Iraqi oil revenues, but Washington DC had instead ended up borrowing some $2 trillion to finance the two wars, the bulk of it from foreign lenders.

    According to the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government 2013 report, this accounted for roughly 20 per cent of the total amount added to the US national debt between 2001 and 2012.

    According to the report, the US “has already paid $260 billion in interest on the war debt,” and future interest payments would amount to trillions of dollars. This Harvard University report has also been carried on its website by the Centre for Research on Globalisation, which is a widely-quoted Montreal-based independent research and media organisation.

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  • If they, Lamar Smith et al. , have an agenda to do battle against Social Sciences, then this may only be one step in a deep plot. Keeping the world’s listeners apprised of social issues is key to managing an exponential growth in population. Anything that is against this logic, to me, is suspiciously acting to deliberately damage advances in secular acceptance. Of the sociological research that I’ve studied, there has never been a result that has not included acceptance or understanding of some sort: It may be a stretch to some, but to me this strikes a hard blow to religious instruction that once owned the moral codes to forgiveness. I must admit though, one of the reasons I trust science so much is because it is scrutinized so thoroughly.

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  • Americans are as a whole very concerned about national defence. If you give up science in favour of wishful thinking, you are begging others to take advantage of you. It is it bit like replacing flood insurance with public prayer, or modern medicine with prayer beads. Even creationists are not that stupid.

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  • As we say in Britain, Penny-wise and pound foolish politicians, can always find false economies!

    I see they have outsourced space launches at NASA – using decades old refurbished Russian rocket engines to keep costs down!

    The rocket engines were really cheap, but I don’t know the cost of a new launch platform!

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