Should the Government Fund Only Science in the “National Interest”?

Nov 3, 2014

Photograph by James Leynse, Corbis

By Eli Kintisch

The glass-and-concrete headquarters of the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, normally hosts scientists who decide the fate of fellow researchers’ grant proposals. But in a nondescript spare office on the 12th floor, new players have set up shop: congressional aides reviewing the merits of scientific studies conducted with government funding.

The two aides are evaluating the scientific merit of research proposals submitted to the the $7-billion-per-year agency, the nation’s biggest funder of basic science initiatives. They’ve selected several dozen federal science grants for special scrutiny, in a move that critics say reflects a conservative political agenda at work. Among these are a climate change education project, archaeology studies in Ethiopia, anthropology work in Argentina, and others dating back to 2005.

The aides, who have been at the NSF since August, have begun a review process that critics say threatens to topple a long-standing wall at the agency between science and politics. The new process reflects an escalating debate between scientists and politicians on Capitol Hill over how much of a say Congress should have in the scientific enterprise.

In recent years, that debate has included skirmishes over appointments at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the role of science at the Environmental Protection Agency under various administrations, and, indeed, the conduct of the committee that’s investigating the NSF—the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.


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