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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