Federal Relations

May 16, 2013

Chairman of the House Science Committee vs. NSF — the fight escalates

In what appears to be an ever escalating battle, the National Science Foundation (NSF) today officially refused to comply with a request to supply reviewer comments to five grants questioned by House Science, Space and Technology Chairman, Lamar Smith (R-TX).

On April 25th, Chairman Smith sent a letter to the NSF, which asked for an explanation by NSF as to how five grants adhered to NSF’s “intellectual merit” guidelines. The grants in question were:

  • Award Abstract #1247824: “Picturing Animals in National Geographic, 1888-2008,” March 15, 2013, ($227,437);
  • Award Abstract #1230911: “Comparative Histories of Scientific Conservation: Nature, Science, and Society in Patagonian and Amazonian South America,” September 1, 2012 ($195,761);
  • Award Abstract #1230365: “The International Criminal Court and the Pursuit of Justice,” August 15, 2012 ($260,001);
  • Award Abstract #1226483, “Comparative Network Analysis: Mapping Global Social Interactions,” August 15, 2012, ($435,000); and
  • Award Abstract #1157551: “Regulating Accountability and Transparency in China’s Dairy Industry,” June 1, 2012 ($152,464).

The Smith letter asked for a response within two weeks, which was May 9th. On May 10th, Marrett responded to Smith saying more time was needed for a response — that response came yesterday. A copy of the Smith Letter is here.

On April 26th, the Ranking Member of the House Science Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson, issued a strong letter against Smith’s letter on April 25th. A copy of the Johnson Letter is here: 4 26 13 – LTR EBJ to Smith Re NSF Grants.

The Smith Letter appears to be the second step of a longer-term fight initiated in March 2013, where the House of Representatives blocked NSF from funding any political science research unless it “served to promote national security or economic development.” Further, the Smith letter appeared to be a precursor to legislation called the High Quality Research Act.

Shortly after the letter was sent to NSF, Chairman Smith announced the intent to mark up a bill to reauthorize the NSF called the High Quality Research Act the first week of May. The draft bill used the same standard as implemented in March on political science research and required the NSF director to certify before an NSF grant is awarded that: the research project is in the interests of the U.S.; is of the finest quality and groundbreaking; and does not duplicate other federally funded research projects. Smith said the intent of the bill was to weed out research not worthy of federal support.  The mark up was slated for May 8th, but was pulled from the committee calendar due to concerns expressed by a wide variety of scientific organizations and supporters.

Yesterday, NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett responded to Chairman Smith’s request by refusing to disclose the reviewer comments on five social science research projects it is funding that Smith questioned. Rather, Marrett offered to brief the committee on the NSF review process and how generally the five grants would have been selected.

The Office of Federal Relations is tracking this issue closely and will continue to update on activity and progress as this develops.