Over the past year and a half, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has confronted the National Science Foundation on matters of merit review and has singled out numerous NSF-funded grants he believes to be questionable uses of the agency’s funding. However, the relationship between Smith and the NSF leadership may be thawing after the agency released new policies on transparency and accountability practices Dec. 10.
Smith has said he believes the NSF should “provide Congress with meaningful justifications for why these grants were approved over the thousands of others that were rejected.” He also has called for research at NSF to be “in the national interest,” although he has not defined what that means specifically. The new NSF policies require each project to have a non-technical description that clearly conveys the purpose of the research and its importance to the public, particularly in how the project would serve the national interest. The NSF defines the national interest using its mission statement: “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; or to secure the national defense.” NSF Director France Córdova said, “We will continue to convey the significance of our science and engineering research in supporting the national interest. To do this we must clearly communicate our funding rationale publicly.”
In response to the new policies, Smith said, “I am encouraged by the NSF’s announcement that it will increase transparency and accountability for taxpayer-supported scientific research. For more than a year, I have been calling for the NSF to provide public explanations for how NSF research grants are in the national interest and worthy of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. The NSF’s new policy is a step in the right direction. Congress and taxpayers will be eager to see how the new NSF national interest criterion is implemented.”
Córdova and Smith will visit a research station in Antarctica together in the coming weeks. It is summer in Antarctica, so perhaps the “warmer” weather will encourage further constructive dialogue between the two. The ASBMB Policy Blotter will continue to report on the situation. Follow the blog to stay up to date on this topic and other science policy news.