From COMPETES to FIRST: What you need to know about the NSF reauthorization legislation

Most Congressional committees are supposed to draft bills that set policy priorities and funding recommendations for the agencies under their jurisdiction. The bill authorizing the policy priorities of the National Science Foundation—the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010—expires this year. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology and the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology are tasked with reauthorizing the NSF in order to provide a clear direction for this and other agencies.

Previous COMPETES bills

The America COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010 set out federal policy priorities and suggested funding levels for many science-specific agencies, including the NSF. The policies in these authorization bills identify areas in which the Congress believes should be altered and improved. For example the 2010 version of COMPETES directed the NSF to continue programs that expand research opportunities for minorities as well as to begin programs to improve the high school and undergraduate research experiences.

The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 expires this year. The U.S. Senate has yet to release its replacement bill, however, a hearing was held recently to inform legislators of what stakeholders would like to see in the next version of COMPETES. The U.S. House, on the other hand, has decided to split COMPETES into multiple bills. The motivation for this is not clear. The Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology and Energy in America Act of 2013, or the EINSTEIN America Act, would reauthorize the Department of Energy’s science mission. The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act, or the FIRST Act would reauthorize the NSF and other agencies.

The FIRST Act

House Republicans have released a discussion draft of the FIRST Act, and the authors of the FIRST Act have said that the goal of this bill to improve accountability and transparency at the NSF in the merit-review and grant award process. This differs from traditional reauthorization bills which typically list recommended funding levels for several years as well as policies that shape the short-term direction of the agencies. Both are absent from the FIRST Act. Rather, this draft of the FIRST Act is deeply flawed and would foist unreasonable requirements on the NSF and its grantees without achieving the stated goals of the bill’s authors of improving accountability in the merit-review process.

Section 104

Section 104 of the FIRST Act is a revision of the draft High Quality Research Act that was circulated earlier this year. The provisions in this section would require grant applications to address one of six “national interest” goals in order to be funded. The ASBMB’s opposition to such requirements has been stated on multiple occasions. First, the provisions in section 104 echo the mission of the NSF, except that the NSF does not expect each individual grant to address these goals, but rather “NSF projects, in the aggregate, should contribute more broadly to achieving societal goals.” Second, given that the outcomes of scientific research are unpredictable, requiring individual grants meet an arbitrary bar of funding worthiness stipulated in this section is counterproductive for scientific research.

At a hearing on the FIRST Act, section 104 was brought up often, and representatives and witnesses weighed in on the “national interest” portion of the bill. Some witnesses and representatives felt, as ASBMB does, that this section would undermine the merit-review process by adding a layer of review that would introduce a level of political interference. Another witness felt the provisions were so general they would be a rubber stamp and would fail at improving accountability. No one voiced support for this section.

Section 112

This section deals with research misconduct and falsification of data. Clearly, this is a serious offense that has the potential to lead scientists, businesses, clinicians, the public and others down the wrong path. However, the provisions listed in the FIRST Act represent Congressional micromanagement of decisions best left to universities and institutions. Most of these organizations have well-established mechanisms to investigate research misconduct by their faculty, and they should be afforded the chance to work accordingly.

The first part of the section would require grantees to sign a statement saying he/she will not falsify data. This is merely a bureaucratic hoop that does nothing to actually prevent research misconduct. Another provision requires publishing the name of a principal investigator involved in a research misconduct investigation. While publication of the PI’s name may be warranted if the PI falsified data, if the PI is exonerated, publication of his/her name as being associated with a research misconduct investigation may still harm that person’s reputation and his/her ability to conduct scientific research or set up collaborations. Finally, this section states that any person guilty of research misconduct is banned from receiving NSF funding for 10 years. While all forms of misconduct should be punished, not all forms of misconduct are the same and a single punishment may not accurately fit the crime.

Other provisions

Section 113 limits a PI to using only five of his/her peer-reviewed publications as citations in a grant application. This is an arbitrary limit that has no justification, does nothing to enhance the Foundation’s grant-funding process and potentially harms the grant applicant.

Section 114 attempts to address duplicative research, but is so general in scope as to be ineffective. One provision states all grants recommended for funding must propose to conduct substantial original research and be achievable under the terms of the grant. These criteria are already used in evaluating grant applications. In another provision, PIs receiving more than five years of NSF funding will be subject to additional scrutiny to ensure he/she is “contributing substantial original research under the grant.” Adding these provisions do nothing to improve the grant application process or accountability at the NSF and reveal a deep misunderstanding of grantsmanship and merit review on the part of the authors of the FIRST Act.

Support

Some provisions of the FIRST Act are laudable and deserve support. Title II of the Act concerns strengthening science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. The Act would establish a STEM advisory council that would advise the president on STEM workforce issues, developments and progress in STEM education and methods to encourage private and non-profit investments in STEM education. We also support the innovations to the technology transfer processes listed in Title IV of the FIRST Act.

A new American COMPETES draft being circulated by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, is more consistent with prior authorization legislation. However, due to the politics of the day, Rep. Johnson’s draft bill has little chance of becoming law.

Summary

The ASBMB opposes the FIRST Act in its current form. The provisions affecting the NSF would fail at achieving the stated goal of the legislation—improving accountability in the merit-review process—and would impose unnecessary hardships on NSF-funded scientists. As Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., said several times during the hearing on the FIRST Act, this is only a discussion draft. The ASBMB looks forward to seeing the next version, with the hope that many of the onerous and absurd provisions currently in the bill will have been replaced with forward-thinking policies that direct the NSF over the next several years.

Follow the Policy Blotter for more updates on the FIRST Act and other pieces of legislation affecting scientists.

UPDATE: Dr. Cora Marrett, acting director of the National Science Foundation, spoke recently at a meeting of the Coalition for National Science Funding. While she reserved comment on specific provisions, Marrett stated strongly that no one at NSF endorsed any of the language in the draft FIRST Act, nor did any NSF employee suggest any of the provisions that appear in the discussion draft.

3 thoughts on “From COMPETES to FIRST: What you need to know about the NSF reauthorization legislation

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