Rep: Feds funded 'European excursion' with $275G Norway tourism study

The National Science Foundation is facing renewed scrutiny over how it awards grants, including one for $275,000 to study the “social impacts” of tourism in Norway’s northern tip, as the House takes up the agency’s request for more funding.

The full House is set to vote next week on science funding across the federal government, including the NSF's request to up its budget from $7.3 billion to $7.7 billion.

But the Republican-led House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is scrutinizing that request and pointing to such grants as the Norway project. Congressional critics question why the NSF funded researchers to travel 4,000 miles to the Norwegian tourist community of Finnmark, particularly when Alaska is a similar destination and in the United States.

“Americans are tired of writing a blank check to the NSF to pay for foreign vacations,” committee Chairman and Texas GOP Rep. Lamar Smith told “Taxpayers’ dollars should focus on national priorities, not European excursions.”

The study was meant to look at the negative and positive impacts of tourism in the Norwegian community.

The study was conducted by University of Indiana professor Joseph Chen, who on Wednesday provided documents showing his findings have appeared in three peer-reviewed journals, amid questions about whether it had been published.

As for the budget request, GOP House leaders want to increase NSF spending on basic research by 4.3 percent, as requested by the administration, but cut lower-priority items to keep overall agency spending at the fiscal 2015 levels. Smith and his staff says the proposed America COMPETES Reauthorization Act makes “targeted investments” in such areas as biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering and mathematics while “de-emphasizing soft sciences” and ensuring projects are of “national interest.”

The NSF is the primary funding source for about 25 percent of all federally supported basic research at U.S. colleges and universities.

Congress created the agency in 1950 with the primary mission to promote the progress of science and advance the country’s “health, prosperity and welfare” and to “secure the national defense."

While the NSF touts its support for work at “the frontiers of science and engineering,” the agency makes clear that it also backs “novel collaborations” and projects that “may seem like science fiction today but which the public will take for granted tomorrow.”

The NSF declined to comment on Wednesday and instead referred to a 1,049-word statement issued last week in response to the House’s proposed reauthorization bill.

Officials argued the bill touts the agency’s history of “major contributions” and outlines a plan for continued success. However, they said, the bill’s spending proposals “contradict” its findings and plans, in part by imposing “arbitrary” spending limits.

This is not the first time the House committee has taken aim at the agency for the 2010-2012 Norway study since Smith became chairman in 2013.

He and his staff have since sifted through dozens of grants -- including the Norway study and at least one on climate change -- looking for waste, fraud and abuse.

Smith has also requested more transparency in the grant-review process and even attempted to pass legislation in 2013 requiring that all grants be of “national interest.”

Smith and NSF Director France Cordova appeared to reach a truce in late 2014 when the agency announced new guidelines on accountability and opening up the review process.

And just last month, when Cordova presented a House subcommittee with the NSF's fiscal 2016 budget request, she also vowed that the agency would be “committed to a careful and continuous evaluation of its portfolio to maximize efficiency, effectiveness and return on investment.”

However, Smith inserted a provision in the reauthorization bill that would codify, or make into law, the national interest provision.