WASHINGTON — A musical called “The Great Immensity” made its New York premiere in 2014, the product of nearly $700,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation. Aimed at increasing awareness of the widespread impacts of climate change, the musical featured one song that explained the emergence of the global economy and another on the extinction of the passenger pigeon. It was widely panned.
The production, however, made a brief comeback earlier this year — not on stage, but in an outline of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s authorization and oversight plan. According to the committee, grant awards like the ones used to fund the musical necessitated a crackdown: Lawmakers must ensure that all grants serve “the national interest.”
That idea was not a new one — it was codified in the law that created the NSF, which funds $7.5 billion annually in research. But the inclusion of the clause has made many scientists fearful that the agency’s work could be politicized or be micromanaged.
Just months earlier, the chairman of the committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), succeeded in inserting a provision into a broader law on US innovation that called for a review of NSF spending based on seven criteria. Those criteria included evidence that research would increase “the economic competitiveness of the United States” and support the country’s “national defense.”
The scrutiny of NSF’s spending has set off a broader debate on Capitol Hill: Should all the research the agency funds have immediate, tangible benefits? And must scientists be able to explain their work’s national impact?
The Republican-controlled committee says yes on both counts, but many Democrats and science advocates see the language as condescension-laden red tape.
“Asking the NSF to certify that what they do is in the national interest is like asking the Defense Department to certify that what they do is in the national interest,” said Jonathan Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania who served on President Barack Obama’s transition team in 2008.
“It doesn’t make sense for our eminent scientists to be spending 42 percent of their time complying with federal research regulations,” Congressman Dan Lipinski of Illinois, a Democrat, said at a science committee hearing in February.
If it’s really a matter of efficiency, Moreno suggested, the Government Accountability Office should perform a cost analysis to account for the time scientists spend justifying their compliance with national interest provisions.
Nonetheless, the NSF says it fully intends to comply with the new provisions and is in the early stages of adapting to the new language.
The science committee intends to reauthorize the NSF this year, according to its outline for the current Congress. And though Republicans control the House, Senate, and White House for the first time in Smith’s tenure as chairman, a policy aide for the science committee told STAT there are no current plans for legislation to make the regulations more stringent — provided the committee is satisfied with the NSF’s compliance with the new language.
Smith, whose office declined a request for an interview, has previously pushed legislation that would shift NSF priorities away from social science and climate research. And while other Republican legislators have lent those provisions support with their votes, they’ve been content to let him do the heavy lifting rhetorically.
“Asking the NSF to certify that what they do is in the national interest is like asking the Defense Department to certify that what they do is in the national interest.”
Jonathan Moreno, professor of medical ethics
To many in the science community, the language as it currently stands signifies a lack of trust from the federal government.
It’s “always implicit” that NSF research is done in the national interest, said Congressman Bill Foster of Illinois. A Democrat on the science committee who holds a PhD in physics from Harvard, Foster worked for 22 years at Fermilab, a federally funded particle physics research center. “It’s trying to do useful research, with the understanding that you need a spectrum of pure and applied research,” he said.
Some warned of a more profound danger.
“Is it enormously burdensome? It’s hard to tell,” said Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Does it tell people not to put any ideas that are maybe a little bit different or out of the mainstream out there? I think it does say that. That’s what I’m concerned about. And some of those things are the biggest advances that are made in science.”
A fear of pursuing science outside the mainstream, he said, could prevent the type of research that often leads to major and unexpected scientific advances.
Foster cited the “Golden Goose” recipients, which are awarded to breakthrough basic-science research projects. At least in name, the awards are a nod to the infamous “Golden Fleece” distinction — handed out in the 1970s and ’80s by Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, a Democrat, to projects he determined to be the worst uses of federal dollars. Scientific research projects with whimsical descriptions often fell victim.
One of last year’s Golden Goose Recipients went posthumously to the pair of scientists who dedicated their lives to studying the reproductive habits of screwworm flies. The project drew scorn initially, but ended up saving the country’s beef industry billions of dollars.
Scientists might not be doing themselves any favors with Congress in their branding of their research. Foster and Rosenberg acknowledged the occasional tendency of some researchers to give clever names to grant proposals or to use colorful language in otherwise dreary sections.
“It’s probably not a healthy thing,” Foster said. “It provides entertainment for people who are reviewing a big stack of grant proposals. As someone who’s done that, I understand boredom can set in.”
Scientists say the impact of the “national interest” provision, at least initially, will be subtle. Foster had no read on whether Smith might push for more comprehensive legislation that could alter NSF research priorities in the current Congress. But many scientists feel the damage has already been done.
“Trying to psychoanalyze the Republican majority that runs this place is not always a winning game,” Foster said.
Others not burdened by congressional decorum were more direct when asked whether Smith’s “national interest” provisions could increase agency efficiency or improve scientific outcomes.
“These moves are either naive — he doesn’t really understand after all these years what science means to the country — or it’s abject harassment that will get him points at home,” Moreno said.