Republicans put ‘national interest’ requirement on US science agency

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Key members of the US House of Representatives are calling for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to justify every grant it awards as being in the “national interest”. The proposal, which is included in a draft bill from the Republican-led House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology that was obtained by Nature, would force the NSF to document how its basic-science grants benefit the country.

The requirement is similar to one in a discussion draft circulated in April by committee chairman Lamar Smith (Republican, Texas). At the time, scientists raised concerns that ‘national interest’ was defined much too narrowly. The current draft bill provides a more expansive definition that includes six goals: economic competitiveness, health and welfare, scientific literacy, partnerships between academia and industry, promotion of scientific progress and national defence.

Those criteria are in line with a ‘broader impacts’ assessment that the NSF, based in Arlington, Virginia, already requires scientists to include in their grant applications. But the bill, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2013, would place an extra burden on NSF programme directors by requiring them to publish justification for each grant award on the foundation’s website. In a time of tight budgets, says a Republican committee aide, research with a high return on investment should be prioritized. “It is the role of a government official who is using federal funds to provide the justification,” says the aide.

But former NSF programme director Scott Collins, a biologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, questions whether the national-interest provision is an appropriate use of NSF staff time. “Conducting cutting-edge science is clearly in the national interest,” he says.

Written By: Sarah Zhang
continue to source article at nature.com

20 COMMENTS

    • In reply to #1 by Quine:

      Okay, last time it was about the fly studies. We can never know what is going to be in the “national interest” until sometimes decades down the road, and in any case we can never predict what is going to be a blind alley until we go there.

      But that’s covered by Goal 5 I assume — “promotion of scientific progress”.

      The current draft bill provides a more expansive definition that includes six goals: economic competitiveness, health and welfare, scientific literacy, partnerships between academia and industry, promotion of scientific progress and national defence.

      I guess it depends how the assessors and panels who do the grant selection treat this requirement. If the politicians just leave them alone they it’s just a box tick. If … !

      Michael

    • In reply to #2 by Mormon Atheist:

      Is it just me or are Republicans getting dumber by the day?

      It’s just you. Republicans have been this stupid since at least the time of Reagan and more likely since the time of McCarthy; they’re merely getting slightly less skilled at pretending they aren’t. A reasonably aware and intelligent observer could have predicted that Republicans would eventually attempt this any time since Reagan took office in 1981.

      This is what is so galling: Republicans have been bad for the country — advocates for bad policy and holders of know-nothing attitudes — for decades, but so many people are so completely unaware of how things work that it has taken 8 years of the utterly moronic Bush for a reasonable majority of people to start rethinking their opinion of the party — and in the meanwhile, the Republicans were so successful that the Democrats have emulated them and have become nearly as bad. (This is simple fact: the Clintons, both Hillary and Bill, were part of a group who decided that the success of the Republicans meant that the Democrats should abandon their traditional stances on issues and move rightward, undergoing what they cynically called “triangulation”. This process began in the mid-1980s and culminated in Obama, a Democratic president who is notably further right than either Reagan or Nixon.)

    • In reply to #2 by Mormon Atheist:

      Is it just me or are Republicans getting dumber by the day?

      Republicans are, on the whole, conservatives. And conservatives, by definition, are people who seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity (and, in some extreme forms, actually oppose modernism and seek a return to “the way things were”). Which is to say that they are not huge fans of science and innovation to begin with.

      A better question, perhaps, is whether Republicans are getting more conservative by the day. I wouldn’t say the rank and file Republicans are, but their leadership certainly seems to be. And that’s what happens when the wacko minority are the only ones that bother to vote in primary elections, thereby limiting the choices available to the majority of voters come election day. Getting money out of politics would be a wonderful thing, but forcing people to vote in primaries (at least if they wanted to later vote in the general elections) would probably be a more effective way to have elected officials who actually represent the majority of their constituents.

    • In reply to #4 by MarcusA1971:

      I think the development of a vaccine against conservatism would be “in the national interest”.

      No vaccine is required, if they don’t evolve they will die. Oh the irony!

  1. I don’t know who was involved or when it happened, but apparantly a House Committee member once asked a scientist if the project he was pitching for would help defend the country and the reply he received was, no, but it’ll make it worth defending.

    Ignorance of how science works is hardly a good position from which to determine policy on matters scientific.

    • In reply to #6 by Stafford Gordon:

      I don’t know who was involved or when it happened, but apparantly a House Committee member once asked a scientist if the project he was pitching for would help defend the country and the reply he received was, no, but it’ll make it worth defending.

      Robert R. Wilson in 1969 justifying to Congress the cost of what later became Fermilab.

      It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture… it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.[4]

      Michael

  2. Nobody ever knows how basic science will be applied. Republicans are confusing science and engineering.
    But without the basic science, e.g. quantum mechanics, you have nothing to work with to create things like computers.

    American tend to put people in charge with a second grade understanding of science. No wonder budgets are so high with so few results.

    Basic science increases our knowledge of how the universe works. That will eventually come in handy. It is just a matter of time. It is very hard to predict which science will pay off soonest.

    • In reply to #9 by Roedy:

      Nobody ever knows how basic science will be applied. Republicans are confusing science and engineering.
      But without the basic science, e.g. quantum mechanics, you have nothing to work with to create things like computers.

      I’d go further and say confusing science and “makin’ stuff”.

      One argument for all science being within the national interest is if your nation doesn’t fund it, other nations will.

      Furthermore suggesting politicians decide where funding should go won’t save money or help anyone. Another Star Wars program anyone?

  3. Im sure most of you recall the two Repugnican representatives who respectively said that A) raped women don’t get pregnant because they have magic vaginas and B) the one who said in Congress that global warming and evolution are lies from the pit of hell. BOTH of those science ignorant nutters are on the House Science Committee. This strikes me as like having goldfish on a bicycle design team.

    The USA is in deep doodoo as long as people who have to deny science as part of their irrational dogma are in such positions of responsibility. Only the people can change this when they stop voting for the clinically insane to represent them. Until then I fear they are stuck with the government they deserve.

  4. @OP – But the bill, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2013, would place an extra burden on NSF programme directors by requiring them to publish justification for each grant award on the foundation’s website.

    Mmmmm! Justification in advance??? Predicting outcomes of scientific research?? They really have no idea do they! – They probably could not recognise an innovation or scientific frontier, if it was pointed out and explained to them!

    In a time of tight budgets, says a Republican committee aide, research with a high return on investment should be prioritized.

    Ah! Like all those military contracts Republican love – which launch with unrealistic budgets, do the R & D on the hoof, and end up doubling or trebling the original budget – and producing what??? Confidence in launching pointless destructive wars?

    “It is the role of a government official who is using federal funds to provide the justification,” says the aide.

    Wouldn’t the application of the results do that at a later date – taking out the guesswork which dullard politicians may not understand!

    After all, – some of these are the people who can’t recognise the potential detrimental effects of global climate change, AFTER it has been spelled out to them in detailed reports!

    • In reply to #18 by Alan4discussion:

      @OP – But the bill, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2013, would place an extra burden on NSF programme directors by requiring them to publish justification for each grant award on the foundation’s website.

      Mmmmm! Justification in advance??? Pre…

      It’s just part of the hassle of doing government funded research. There are tons of paperwork you have to do that really has little if any point. My boss coined a term for it, actually not sure if he invented it but it was the first time I had heard it: “Write Only Documentation” (a play on Read Only Memory which is a real thing of course). It was literally true, we had to write things that no one ever read but you had to do them. One of the coolest projects was an AI project where it was actually really easy to write a program to analyze the structure of the system and generate a mountain of documentation that in the past we had to write by hand. That was one of the most labor saving investments I ever made and it impressed the funders both because they got lots of paper in the appropriate format guaranteed on time and it showed that the tools we were developing actually worked on real projects.

      • In reply to #19 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #18 by Alan4discussion:

        It’s just part of the hassle of doing government funded research. There are tons of paperwork you have to do that really has little if any point. My boss coined a term for it, actually not sure if he invented it but it was the first time I had heard it: “Write Only Documentation”

        A very descriptive term. Unfortunately in politics there are not only constant calls for this sort of stuff, but the real dullards treat all documentation as such.

        It reminds me of the times I was sitting on a committee with one of the thickest politicians I have ever met. We often had 200 pages of detailed reports which he referred to as “all this rubbish” – in the hearing of the authors!!! – and then wasted everyone’s time asking simplistic questions which had already been answered several times in the paperwork he had not bothered to read before the meeting.
        He also regularly complained that I was asking searching questions about the multimillion £ budgets we were supposed to be scrutinising, thus preventing the meeting from finishing early and letting him go home!
        To him, and some other noddies like him – all detailed papers, – not just the bureaucracy you mention, are “write only”!

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