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Congressional debate over science funding draws fire from critics

  • April 22, 2013: President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, where he hosted the White House Science Fair to celebrate the student winners of a broad range of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions from across the country.AP Photo/Susan Walsh

  • April 22, 2013: President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, where he hosted the White House Science Fair to celebrate the student winners of a broad range of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions from across the country.AP Photo/Susan Walsh

A battle over science is under way in the halls of the Capitol, with some in Congress calling for more say in which research projects receive federal dollars.

Political science studies funded this year must show their results will benefit U.S. economic or security interests, and another proposal imposes similar new criteria on other scientific studies.

In response, critics have charged lawmakers with intruding into the National Science Foundations approval process.

'It's a dangerous thing for Congress ... to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding.'

- Presidential science adviser John Holdren

Every scientific discipline has a stake in undoing the damage inflicted on political science, and, in fact, to the national interest, by the new criteria, writes Kenneth Prewitt of Columbia University, in a commentary published May 3 in the journal Science. Every scientist should vigorously contest any effort to apply those criteria more broadly.

Congress and science
The new rule for political science comes from legislation passed in March, which denies the National Science Foundation (NSF) the ability to fund political science studies unless the research will promote national security or the economic interests of the United States. A proposal by Rep. Lamar Smith, R. Texas, would expand that requirement to all NSF-funded studies.

Smith's draft bill, obtained by Science Insider, would require the NSF to certify that any project it funds meets new criteria, including being in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science. [7 Great Dramas in Congressional History]

During a hearing in April, presidential science adviser John Holdren objected to applying new criteria to funding proposals: "I think it's a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding, Holdren said, according to a Science Insider report.

Prewitt and others say these efforts by lawmakers bring a number of risks, including valuing short-term pay off at the expense of long-term, and often unanticipated, benefits. For instance, narrowly targeted criteria would have prevented the funding of the defense research that led to the Internet, Prewitt says.

Today, we cannot know how and when the science of the Higgs boson sub-atomic particle will prove useful. But conditions will change; the knowledge will be used,writes Prewitt, referring to a newly discovered particle thought to explain how other particles get their mass.

Congressional criteria also put agencies in a situation where they must consider whether or not a project is politically feasible, on top of reviewing its scientific merits, said Robert Cook-Deegan, a research professor at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.

Currently, the NSF awards grants based on intellectual merit and the broader impacts of the research. Decisions are made by peer review, a process in which experts in a particular field evaluate a proposal. New criteria threaten this process, and as a result, politically controversial science, such as climate change and stem cell research, could be stifled, Prewitt argues.

In a statement, Smith defended his proposal, writing: The draft bill maintains the current peer review process and improves on it by adding a layer of accountability.

Constitutional privilege?
Proponents of more oversight do have a strong argument, Cook-Deegan said, because the U.S. Constitution gives Congress oversight over executive branch agencies, including the NSF. (Congress, as part of the federal budget, approves the NSFs budget.)

Both Smith and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who proposed the criteria for political science studies, have questioned the merits of individual, NSF-funded studies. Their lists have included studies on the evolving depiction of animals in the magazine National Geographic; on attitudes toward majority rule and minority rights focusing on the Senate filibuster; and on the International Criminal Court and the African Union Commissions interpretation of international justice and human rights.

These lists are the latest in a well-established history of singling out individual research projects for criticism. Beginning in March 1975, Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire began issuing Golden Fleece Awards, highlighting what he considered wasteful government spending. His research picks included studies to determine why people fall in love, and under what conditions people, monkeys and rats bite and clench their jaws, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that social science research, including political science, has been a particular target for Republican lawmakers. Historically, conservatives have perceived social science as a tool to advance the liberal agenda, Cook-Deegan said.

This perception has created political conflict over research in a number of topics, including gun violence, he said. Gun violence research, stymied for many years by congressional decree, received a boost from President Barack Obama earlier this year as part of his response to the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

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