Friday Golden Fleece: America [already] COMPETES

Rep. Lamar Smith

That’s right, he’s the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Imagine (or remember): you’re a grad student; you’ve struggled through your first two years juggling classes, teaching and research; you managed to get your committee together so that you could contend with three weeks of written then three hours of oral comprehensive exams. You synthesized your dissertation proposal and your written comps into something coherent, passed a dozen drafts back and forth with your advisor, and finally managed to navigate the FastLane website to get it submitted to the NSF before the deadline. In all likelihood, it was rejected, so you tried again the following year. One day you’re working at your computer when the lab phone rings, and you’re stunned to find that it’s your program officer telling you that your Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant has been funded. $20,000 over two years to support your field work in Bolivia! Some time later, you learn that the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is telling the world that your research in particular is a waste of taxpayer money.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed H.R. 1806, also known as the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015. The bill, sponsored by Texas Republican Lamar Smith, includes language specifying that any grant funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) “is in the national interest.” Furthermore, the NSF must publicly justify how each funded grant meets this requirement. The criteria for serving the national interest are specified:
…as indicated by having the potential to achieve—
(A) increased economic competitiveness in the United States;
(B) advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;
(C) development of an American STEM workforce that is globally competitive;
(D) increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the United States;
(E) increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States;
(F) support for the national defense of the United States; or
(G) promotion of the progress of science in the United States.
If you’ve read the previous editions of Friday Golden Fleece, you can probably guess that Fierce Roller is not a fan of H.R. 1806. The overarching point of these posts has been that politicians suck at predicting which research proposals will produce important scientific results, especially when their motivation is to score cheap political points at the expense of hardworking scientists. The structure of the NSF is intentionally designed to buffer funding decisions from politics: the actual funding decisions are made not by political appointees but by the program officers. I would argue that this buffer is crucial, but Rep. Smith, judging by his words and actions, appears to disagree.
Why is the buffer crucial? First, scientific questions sometimes have policy implications, and it’s a bad idea to put funding decisions into the hands of people who care more about the policies than the facts. Doing so invites across the board defunding of research programs that might produce results that undermine the justifications for favored policies. Similarly, science sometimes has philosophical implications, and funding decisions shouldn’t be made by people who can’t abide those implications. Finally, political winds change, and the momentary popularity of a given set of ideas shouldn’t be allowed to derail the long-term goal of understanding how the universe works. This is far from a comprehensive list, but I think it’s already sufficient reason to insist that some distance be maintained between politicians and science funding.
How has Rep. Smith shown that he disagrees? For one thing, he has fought to reduce funding to the NSF’s Social/Behavioral/Economic (SBE) Research Directorate because, in his opinion, “The SBE Directorate has funded too many questionable grants.” He has, in true Golden Fleece fashion, identified specific grants as “questionable,” and in his process of identifying them, has demanded (p. 19) and received the anonymous peer reviews that were generated as part of the decision to fund them (I included excerpts of the first paragraph to show that, although the second is phrased as a request, it is a demand):
Congress’ authority to obtain information from federal agencies is broad…In McGrain v. Dougherty, the Supreme Court described the power of inquiry, with the accompanying process to enforce it, as “an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative process…
I am requesting paper copies of the following public records: every e-mail, letter, memorandum, record, note, text message, all peer reviews considered for selection and recommendations made by the research panel to the National Science Foundation (NSF) or document of any kind that pertains to the NSF’s consideration and approval of the grants listed below, including any approved amendments to the grants: [a list of 20 funded grants, including the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant I mentioned above*, follows]
That’s right, he got the peer reviews. (I’ll try to keep this short, but I want to point out how dangerous this is. Those peer reviews are anonymous for a reason. It is crucial that reviewers feel free to honestly evaluate grant proposals without fear of repercussions. People move around a lot in academia, and the researcher whose proposal you sunk today with a “Fair” rating may be on your tenure committee tomorrow.)
Rep. Smith also lies about the content of the grants that he calls questionable:
NSF has handed out…$5.6 million to Columbia University for a climate change scavenger hunt and phone game; and $4 million for college students to imagine a utopian future in which everyone is forced to give up eating meat and ride bicycles, while the courts re-distribute property to achieve economic equality.
Neither of those things is true. In both cases, Rep. Smith has fixated on one tiny part of a large research project and pretended that it represents the whole project. In the case of the $4 million grant, the involvement of the college students is part of the Broader Impacts portion of the grant, the specific aims of which are to address
(1) How do different patterns of land cover, land management, and water resource engineering practices affect the resilience of freshwater ecosystems under a changing climate? (2) How can governance systems for water and land use be made more responsive to drivers of change to meet diverse human needs? (3) In what ways are human-environment systems able to cope with change and in what ways are they vulnerable to potential changes in climate and freshwaters?
In the case of the Columbia University grant, the scavenger hunt (presumably part of the Broader Impacts as well) was not a significant enough part of the grant to merit a mention in the abstract. So in both cases, Rep. Smith leads us to believe that the entire cost of the grant is going to pay for the one tiny part that he finds easiest to mock.
Why would Rep. Smith lie about the contents of these “questionable” grants? I suggest that it is because an honest description of their content wouldn’t sound sufficiently silly for his purposes (you can read the abstracts and judge for yourself). And this in turn suggests that he knows the research is not as silly as he represents it to be; if it were, he could be honest about the grants rather than attacking straw-man versions.
Back to H.S. 1806. The priorities in the list above certainly seem like worthy goals. The problem is that NSF is already achieving these goals. G corresponds to the Scientific Merit and the remainder to the Broader Impacts criteria by which NSF proposals are already judged. Why is a bill needed to tell NSF to do what they are already doing? Rep. Smith’s correspondence with the NSF reveals the real motivation behind this part of the bill (p. 13 of the pdf):
“…as you described the new NSF process, program officers will provide a public justification on the Foundation’s website as to why a research grant is in the national interest prior to the award of any federal funding. This is a good step forward. However, because the definition of what constitutes the national interest may be too broadly interpreted, the crucial next steps are the formulation of objective criteria for NSF employees and researchers to use as well as clear, consistent communications with the research community on their meaning. The Committee is looking to address the new NSF processes…” [emphasis mine]
In other words, the NSF can’t be trusted to determine what research lies in the national interest, so Congress is going to tell them. Rep. Smith’s ultimate goal is to defund research that leads to conclusions he doesn’t like. A large portion of the grants he calls “questionable” are related to climate change, in which Rep. Smith does not believe [fact-checked here]. This is exactly what I mean by putting funding decisions in the hands of people who care more about policies than facts.
The effort to defund research that leads to conclusions he dislikes reveals something about the strength of Rep. Smith’s convictions: if you really believe that climate change is not happening, not caused by humans, or whatever, you should WANT to fund research into climate change. If you really believe that the facts support the conclusion that climate change is not happening (or not human-caused), what better way is there to bring this to light? These are scientific questions, and they can only be resolved by science. The problem is that they already have been settled, and Rep. Smith doesn’t want to accept these conclusions. He wants to make (or keep) these questions firmly in the realm of politics, where rhetoric, straw man attacks, and outright lies can trump data.
*I made up some details, but I’d be very surprised if the reality were dramatically different.

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