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Public Policy Report for 2 June 2014

House Approves Increased NSF Funding, But Questions Value of Social Science

The House debated a bill last week to fund the National Science Foundation (NSF), Departments of Commerce and Justice, and other federal agencies in fiscal year 2015. During the debate, members of Congress repeatedly picked out individual research grants they deemed to be objectionable and called for funding limitations at NSF.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) voiced his concern on the House floor about NSF funding for social and behavioral research. Cantor cited examples of objectionable research, including “the attitude of Americans on the filibuster, studying ‘what makes politics interesting,’ and how politicians change their Web sites.”

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, sought to freeze funding for the Directorate for Social, Behavior, and Economic Sciences (SBE) at NSF at its current level, rather than allowing for the $15 million increase approved by the House Appropriations Committee.

“Much of the research funded through the SBE directorate has obvious scientific merit and is in the national interest,” said Smith during debate on the amendment. “But the SBE directorate has also funded dozens, perhaps hundreds, of questionable grants. For example, when the National Science Foundation pays a researcher more than $227,000 to thumb through the pages of old National Geographic magazines to look at animal pictures, taxpayers feel as though the NSF is thumbing its nose at them.”

The Smith-Cantor amendment passed in a close vote of 208 to 201. Although most of the support came from Republicans, five conservative Democrats voted in favor of the amendment. Eighteen Republicans and most of the Democratic caucus voted against the amendment.

The top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over NSF called the amendment a “misguided” effort that would “put handcuffs on the agency” by moving away from a merit-based selection process. Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA) highlighted the importance of insulating science from politics. “If we want to continue to lead the world, the last thing we want to do is to interject politics into the decision making process of what basic scientific research should be supported.”

“We shouldn’t be wasting hard-earned taxpayer money, in fact, on policy solutions that are not rooted in sound research, precisely the type of research that some of those efforts here today seek to curtail,” stated Representative David Price (D-NC). “In an era when a quick Internet search can generate a statistic or an opinion to support any argument, it is more important than ever that we have clear, dependable, peer-review research into the most pressing social, behavior, and economic questions of the day.”

Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA), who serves on the House Science Committee, offered an amendment to cut $67 million from the increase proposed for NSF’s administration, education programs, and facilities construction. Broun cited examples of duplicative science education programs and said: “NSF should not be given more money for new facilities until it is established that NSF is operating existing facilities efficiently and effectively.”

Members of both parties spoke against the amendment. Representative Robert Aderholt (R-AL) said “I know the gentleman [Mr. Broun] cares very strongly about protecting the taxpayers’ interests, and I don’t believe that making it more difficult for NSF to monitor and oversee its funds helps these interests in any way.”

The Broun amendment was rejected by voice vote.

Representative Matt Salmon (R-AZ) successfully offered an amendment to bar NSF from funding a grant awarded to researchers at Tufts University to study how tea quality changes due to climate change and the resulting socioeconomic impacts on farming communities.

Another amendment sponsored by Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) took aim at “ludicrous studies,” including NSF research that was highlighted in reports on ‘wasteful spending’ prepared by Senator Coburn (R-OK). Representative Gosar provided examples of “abuses” such as a project where researchers were studying the response of marine organisms to stressors like microbes. The research gained media attention for studying ‘shrimp on a treadmill.’ The principal investigator has previously defended his work, saying that he studies the resilience of commercially important seafood species in changing water quality. The amendment was not allowed because it violated a House rule that bars legislating in an appropriations bill.

The House also agreed by voice vote to prohibit funding for the National Climate Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s climate assessment, and other international climate reports.

An effort to restore a 24 percent reduction for climate research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was unsuccessful. Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) tried to restore $37.5 million in funding, but his amendment failed by voice vote.

The bill passed with the bipartisan support of 321 Representatives. Eighty-seven members, including some members of both parties, opposed the bill. H.R. 4660 would fund NSF at $7.4 billion in fiscal year 2015, a $237 million increase above the current level. The legislation also includes $5.3 billion for NOAA, which is roughly the same amount of funding the agency received in 2014.

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Science Committee Approves NSF Reauthorization Despite Opposition from Scientists

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has approved a bill that many in the scientific community have expressed deep concerns about. The “Frontiers in Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014” was passed on 28 May 2014.

The bill would reauthorize programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as implement new policies. Some of these new policy provisions are worrisome to scientific societies and to universities, including:

  • The overall authorization for NSF of $7.3 billion in fiscal year 2015. This is roughly $120 million less than the funding level recently passed by the House of Representatives.
  • The specification of funding levels for each research directorate at NSF. Congress has not traditionally specified this amount of detail in past authorization bills or in annual appropriation bills.
  • Cuts the funding authorization for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences directorate to $150 million, which about 40 percent less than the 2014 enacted level.
  • Makes it more difficult for scientists who have received more than five years of NSF support to receive new grants.
  • New requirement for researchers funded by NSF to not falsify or fabricate data or plagiarize others’ work. (The concern here is that the provision signals a fundamental mistrust of scientists and that the requirement is duplicative of existing federal authority.)

Democrats on the committee offered numerous amendments to remove or modify the most controversial provisions of H.R. 4186, but these amendments were defeated.

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Biological Organizations Express Concerns with FIRST Act

A group of biological science organizations sent a letter to the members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to express their concerns with the “Frontiers in Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014.”

“The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an important engine that helps power our nation’s economic growth,” states the letter. “Through its competitive, peer-reviewed research grants, NSF supports the development of new knowledge that will help to solve the most challenging problems facing society, and will lead to new scientific discoveries, patents, and jobs.”

Concerns were raised about the overall funding level for NSF, the specification of funding by directorate, and the language on misrepresentation of research results.

The letter was signed by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, Botanical Society of America, Ecological Society of America, Long Term Ecological Research Network, Organization of Biological Field Stations, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, and the Society of Systematic Biologists.

Read the letter at http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20140521firstact.html.

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Appropriators Approve Bills to Boost Agriculture Research Spending

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have approved different versions of bills to fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in fiscal year 2015. The two bills differ significantly in terms of total funding, with the House bill providing about $300 million more.

Funding for intramural research at the Agricultural Research Service varies between the bills. The Senate bill would provide $1.14 billion, $17 million more than the current level. The House bill would provide $1.12 billion, a slight reduction from the 2014 enacted level.

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, USDA’s competitively awarded extramural research program, would receive $325 million in both bills. The proposed funding level is an increase of $8.5 million above fiscal year 2014.

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Participate in the Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits

The Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits is a national initiative is an opportunity for biologists across the country to meet with their federal or state elected officials to showcase the people, facilities, and equipment that are required to support and conduct scientific research.

The 6th Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event enables scientists, graduate students, representatives of research facilities, and people affiliated with scientific collections to meet with their elected officials without traveling to Washington, DC. Participants may either invite their elected official to visit their research facility or can meet at the policymaker’s local office.

Participants will be prepared for their meeting with a lawmaker through an interactive training webinar. Individuals participating in this event will receive training on how to improve their communication skills and tips for conducting a successful meeting with an elected official. Information will also be presented about federal funding for biological research.

The event is made possible by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, with the support of event sponsors Botanical Society of America, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Organization of Biological Field Stations, Society for the Study of Evolution, and Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.

Participation is free, but registration will close on 13 July 2014. For more information and to register, visit www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html.

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Upcoming Briefing on Long Term Environmental Research

Join the Long Term Ecological Research Network for a science briefing on “Long Term Ecological Research: Regional Data for Large Scale Environmental Issues. The free event will be held on 10 June 2014 from 10:00 to 11:00 AM in the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, DC. Three senior scientists will provide an overview of how this innovative national research program is capturing long-term observational and experimental data to improve our scientific understanding of how ecosystems, from arid landscapes in the southwestern U.S. to agricultural systems in the Midwest to urban environments in the mid-Atlantic, are structured and function. Learn more and RSVP at http://www.aibs.org/rsvp/lter.html.

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Become an Advocate for Science: Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center

Quick, free, easy, effective, impactful! Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center today! (www.aibs.org/public-policy/legislativeactioncenter.html)

The AIBS Legislative Action Center is an online resource that allows biologists and science educators to quickly and effectively influence policy and public opinion. Each day lawmakers must make tough decisions about science policy. For example, what investments to make in federal research programs, how to conserve biodiversity, how to mitigate climate change, or under what circumstances to permit stem cell research. Scientists now have the opportunity to help elected officials understand these issues. These exciting new advocacy tools allows individuals to quickly and easily communicate with members of Congress, executive branch officials, and selected media outlets.

This new tool is made possible through contributions from the Society for the Study of Evolution, Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, and the Botanical Society of America.

AIBS and our partner organizations invite scientists and science educators to become policy advocates today. Simply go to http://capwiz.com/aibs/home/ to send a prepared letter or to sign up to receive periodic Action Alerts.

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