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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