Fresh on the heels of the Coburn amendment to the restoration of much of the NSF budget for 2012 that is likely to decimate political science funding in the near future, the Senate is trying to further limit NSF. Rep. Lamar Smith, Chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is proposing to require all NSF funded research to justify how it will benefit the US population.
Set aside for a second that NSF funds fundamental science that is not required to have a direct application to human populations (I think we have a funding agency for that). The whole point of basic research is that it is foundational. In many cases the results of current studies funded by NSF may have massive human impacts down the road. For some, those impacts might be intentional or predicted, but for most they will not. The idea that we can easily predict the impact on society a priori is unicorn-riding fantasy.
But the bigger issue here is why we have SOPA-supporting, climate change skeptic tea party lawyer deciding how the NSF should decide on science funding priorities. Maybe it's an upgrade on his predecessor, Ralph Hall, but the absurdity of the Congressional Science Committee being populated by people who have zero background in science is disturbing, though nothing new. Maybe our situation isn't as bad as what is happening in Canada, but we need to be concerned when politicians think they know how to "improve" the way a science agency runs their business.
Smith's suggestion, made during the afternoon hearing, could signal yet another twist in the debate. It also suggests that his thinking had evolved in the 2 hours between hearings. Instead of confining himself to social science research, as he and his Republican colleagues had done during the morning hearing with Holdren, Smith focused on NSF's entire portfolio in his afternoon comments to acting NSF Director Cora Marrett and Dan Arvizu, chair of the National Science Board that oversees NSF.
"These questions are not easy," Smith said in his opening statement. "It requires recognition that we might be able to improve the process by which NSF makes its funding decisions."
Later in the hearing, Smith made the case for a new yardstick with which to measure an NSF grant that would focus on its likely contribution to "the national interest." Turning to Arvizu, he said, "If there's a way to improve the process by which NSF makes its awards, I assume that you'd support it."
If, in fact, the Science Committee splits NSF out of the COMPETES Act and into a separate bill, it'll make pretty clear that their intention is to tie the agencies hands as much as possible. This is not about making decisions about the national funding objective, it's about people who don't understand science trying to force money away from anything they fear. I think the president's Science Advisor, John Holdren, summed it up pretty well, when he said "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."