Before Congress left for its summer recess, House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) introduced a bill that, according to a committee statement, “holds NSF accountable for how taxpayer dollars are spent.”
The bill, H.R. 3293, is only 372 words long. Entitled Scientific Research in the National Interest Act, the legislation is intended, as explained in the bill, “To provide for greater accountability in Federal funding for scientific research, to promote the progress of science in the United States that serves that national interest.”
The bill’s language is familiar, having appeared in H.R. 1806, the House-passed reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. A comparison between the two measures finds differences confined to the statement of the bill’s purpose and the bill’s short title (both as shown above in italics) and the inclusion of the words “National Science” when making reference to the “National Science Foundation.”
The committee statement acknowledges that NSF changed its procedures to increase transparency and accountability, noting Director France Cordova “agreed with a legislative effort to uphold a national interest standard for taxpayer-funded grants.”(For more, see this February 26 committee release.) The committee statement explains “NSF is now implementing a policy of clear, non-technical explanations of research projects. NSF staff and outside researchers will compose project abstracts that explain how each project meets intellectual merit criteria, is consistent with NSF’s mission, and supports the national interest.” The statement continues, providing the rationale for the introduction of H.R. 3293 by explaining “This legislation makes this commitment permanent.”
The committee statement quotes Smith making the same points he has previously made:
“We must set funding priorities that ensure America remains first in the global marketplace of basic research and technological innovation, while preventing misuse of Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars. Unfortunately, in the past NSF has funded too many questionable research grants - money that should have gone to projects in the national interest. For example, how does the federal government justify spending $220,000 to study animal photos in National Geographic? Or $50,000 to study lawsuits in Peru from 1600 - 1700? Federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used on such research instead of on more worthy projects.
“Investments in basic research can lead to discoveries that change our world, expand our horizons and save lives. But we cannot afford to waste taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. For instance, the almost million dollars spent on a climate change musical could have funded research to meet real national priorities such as predicting severe weather events, discovering new sources of energy, and improving cybersecurity. All government employees and their agency heads need to remember they are accountable to the American taxpayer who pays their salaries and funds their projects. It is not the government's money; it's the people's money. The Scientific Research in the National Interest Act is a step toward more accountability.”
As mentioned, the provisions of H.R. 3293 are identical to Title I, Section 105 (page 15) of H.R. 1806, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015. The House passed this bill on May 20 by a fairly close vote without Democratic support. It was sent to the Senate where a companion bill is being drafted that reportedly will be much less expansive than the 31,000 word House bill.
The Senate schedule for their reauthorization of the COMPETES bill is not known. If the Senate passes a bill the time needed to settle differences between the two measures will be lengthy. Unless provisions appearing in the House bill are deleted the resulting bill will likely be vetoed.
The introduction of H.R. 3293 may be an effort to make permanent these changes to NSF’s grant making process without waiting for a COMPETES bill to be sent to the President. A difference this time is the addition of Democratic support for this bill that was absent earlier this year. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Rep. Daniel Lipinski, who both voted against the COMPETES bill on the House floor, are listed as original cosponsors of H.R. 3293. Grayson is the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Energy; Lipinski is the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology (with jurisdiction over the NSF) of the House Science Committee. They join 17 Republicans in cosponsoring this bill, all of whom sit on the Science Committee, including all subcommittee chairmen. The Science Committee has not announced when the bill will have a hearing.