National Science Foundation Sinks $700K Into Climate Change Musical

Published February 22, 2016

On February 10, 2016, the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan Scientific Research in the National Interest Act (H.R. 3293).  Its purpose: to ensure that the National Science Foundation (NSF) is open and accountable to the taxpayers about how their hard-earned dollars are spent.

The bill was introduced by Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and requires that each NSF grant award be accompanied by a non-technical explanation of how the project serves the national interest. This written justification is intended to affirm NSF’s determination that a project is worthy of taxpayer support. The bill passed the House by a vote of 236 – 178.  It now goes to the Senate.  As the NSF is a poster child for the sometimes frivolous nature of government-funded science in the U.S., shining a light on NSF’s grant-making is a valuable and necessary thing to do.

Following are the original cosponsors of the bipartian members of the Science Committee:   Reps. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.); Frank Lucas (R-Okla.); Alan Grayson (D-Fla.); Barbara Comstock (R-Va.); John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) Randy Weber (R-Texas); Stephen Knight (R-Calif.); Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla); Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.); Brian Babin (R-Texas); Mo Brooks (R-Ala.); Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.); Bill Johnson (R-Utah); Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.); Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas); Bill Posey (R-Fla.); Gary Palmer (R-Ala.); and Ralph Abraham (R-La.)

“Rethinking Science Funding” in 2013 

Three plus years ago, September 30, 2013, Lamar Smith and Eric Cantor began to rethink science funding through their collaborative op-ed article published inUSA Today titled “Rethinking Science Funding.”  At the time Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas was chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, a position he holds today, while Rep. Eric Cantor, before his re-election defeat in June of 2004 to newcomer David Brat, was the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Although the U.S. government was spending more on research and development than any other country, the Chinese were nevertheless perceived to have the fastest supercomputer, high-energy physicists were looking to research conducted in Europe more than in America, and NASA astronauts were hitching rides to the Space Station on board Russian spacecraft.  As such Smith and Cantor had cause to wonder whether China and India would soon surpass the U.S.

Smith and Cantor rightly concluded that for this nation to remain globally competitive, we needed to make sure that priorities are funded and money is being used wisely. In 2013 the National Science Foundation (NSF) was spending $7 billion of taxpayers’ money every year. While Smith and Cantor did find that the NSF spent most of its funds well, they were seeing far too many questionable grants, especially in the social, behavioral and economic sciences.  One questionable grant involved $220,000 to the National Geographic for the research of animal photos in the magazine.  Other questionable grants cited in Smith and Cantor’s USA Today op-ed are listed below:

  • Rangeland management in Mongolia $1,499,718;
  • History of Chiapas, Mexico (350 BC-1350 AD) $280,558;
  • Mayan architecture and the salt industry $233,141;
  • Bronze Age in Cyprus $197,127.

Additional Smith and Cantor op-ed reflections:  1) government employees and their agency heads must remember it’s not the government’s money; it’s the people’s money, and 2) asking questions about grants to obtain more information is reasonable to provide meaningful justification for why some grants are chosen over thousands of others.  Likewise expressed was a desire to work with the NSF to address concerns so a better process could be established for evaluating research proposals. 

Question about science funding elicits strong criticism

As might be expected, the September 30 op-ed of Smith and Cantor was subject to criticism.  One target of questionable funding was “Bronze Age in Cyprus”, which elicited a marked response from Sturt Manning because of his research interest on the topic as Classics Department Chair at Cornell University.   Manning’s anger was expressed in this article written in response to the Smith and Cantor opinion piece.  Manning further cites other article that express similar reactions and argument from his colleagues.  One such reaction and argument came from Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology at Berkley, with her article entitled, “Why fund studies of Maya architecture instead of saving lives?”

What ensued was tension between the NSF and the House of Representatives Science Committee over congressional oversight of its grant award process.  This on-going feud was settled when in December of 2014, NSF director France Cordova formally adopted new rules for increased transparency and accountability that required non-technical explanations and justifications for new grants. At the time Chairman Lamar Smith remarked: “It appears the new NSF policy parallels a significant provision of the FIRST Act approved by this Committee last fall, with its requirement that NSF publish a justification for each funded grant that sets forth the project’s scientific merit and national interest.”

With France Córdova’s commitment to work for the same legislative effort, Rep. Lamar Smith succeeded in sponsoring and then introducing H.R. 3293 to the U.S. House on July 29, 2015.  Recognition of how the federal government awards many grants that few Americans would consider to be in the national interest, led up to the formulation and introduction of H.R. 3293 on the floor of House. 

The bill requires that each NSF public announcement of a grant award be accompanied by a non-technical explanation of the project’s scientific merits and how it serves the national interest. This written justification affirms NSF’s determination that a project is worthy of taxpayer support, based on scientific merit and national interest.

National interests a qualifier for science grants

How is national interests to be defined in the legislation as having the potential to achieve? Increased economic competitiveness in the United States;

  • Increased economic competitiveness in the United States;
  • Advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;
  • Development of an American STEM workforce that is globally competitive;
  • Increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the United States
  • Increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States;
  • Support for the national defense of the United States; or
  • Promotion of the progress of science in the United States.

 before H.R. 3293 was passed in the House on February 10, 2016, Rep. Lamar Smith was a featured writer in the Winter, 2016 ISSUES in Science and Technology. Click HERE to read Smith’s piece, “Fact Check: Scientific Research in the National Interest Act.”  In his article Lamar speaks of a number of falsehoods that have been spread to scare scientific community into opposing the legislation by opponents of bringing  accountability and transparency to taxpayer-funded scientific research that have been spread by opponents

Lamar sets the record straight by negating charges leveled against H.B. 3293.

  • Bill does not change or interfere with the merit review process for approving
  • Bill does not mean that research projects will be judged by the title as to whether or not they are worthy federal funding
  • Bill does not mean that research projects will be judged by the title as to whether or not they are worthy of federal funding
  • As to the bill attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, why then did NSF director France Córdova testify before the Science Committee earlier this year (Feb.16) saying that the Research in the National Interest Act is compatible and consistent with the NSF policy set forth in December of 2014?

Rep. Lamar Smith also questions the spending of $700,000 on a climate change musical encouraging transfor­mative research?  Aditionally, “What is high-risk, high-reward about spending $340,000 to study early human-set fires in New Zealand?  What is groundbreaking about spending $487,000 to study the Icelandic textile industry during the Viking era? ” Lamar does concede that there may be good answers to the questions, but his committee was not able to come up with one.  When NSF funds projects that don’t meet such standards, there is less money to support scientific research that keeps our country at the forefront of innovation.

As Rep. Smith lamented, NSF is able to fund only one out of every five proposals submitted by scientists and research institutions.  When NSF funds projects are funded don’t meet set standards, there is less money to support scientific research that keeps our country at the forefront of innovation.

Taxpayers deserve science projects of merit, not frivolous ones

With a national debt that exceeds $18 trillion and continues to climb by hundreds of billions of dollars each year, taxpayers cannot afford to fund every research proposal, much less frivolous ones.

We owe it to American taxpayers and the scien­tific community to ensure that every grant funded is worthy and in the national interest.

HR 3293 has been sent to the U.S. Senate, in particular to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. 

Contact your senators and insist they pass H.R. 3293. and that Senator Republican leader Mitch McConnell permit the bill to come to the floor for a vote.

[Originally published at Illinois Review]