What we’re watching in 2015: National Science Foundation

In this four-part series, we will take a look at important issues for the research community in 2015. Today’s topic is the National Science Foundation. We already looked at 21st Century Cures and federal research funding. Our last post about the National Institutes of Health will come later this week.

Last year was eventful for the National Science Foundation. France Córdova started as the director in March. The U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, led by chairman U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, spent much of the year confronting the agency on matters of merit review. Smith and other government officials, including retired U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Ajit Pai, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, singled out numerous NSF-funded grants they believed to be questionable uses of the agency’s funding. However, the year ended on a more positive note after the NSF released new policies on transparency and accountability in December. In fact, Smith issued a press release saying he was encouraged by these new policies.

While the House SST committee has so far remained quiet in the 114th Congress, Smith and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., recently published an opinion piece in Politico Magazine arguing that Republicans are not at war with science. The article named 10 NSF-funded projects Smith and Paul consider frivolous, so it seems the tactic of highlighting individual grants is still very much alive. (The ASBMB’s Ben Corb responded here.) While criticism from Smith will likely be tempered until results from the new NSF policies are available, scientists can expect to see a continuation of grant-specific criticism from Congress.

On the legislative front, the 2010 America COMPETES Act, which governs federal policies on science education and research at the NSF and other agencies, expired last year and was not reauthorized by Congress. Scientists can certainly expect to see another COMPETES reauthorization bill introduced in 2015. ScienceInsider has a detailed analysis of the likelihood of the bill’s passage here. Given that both chambers of Congress are now controlled by Republicans, The ASBMB is hopeful that any COMPETES reauthorization bill that is introduced is a forward-looking proposal that delineates a clear path for science policy.

Follow the Policy Blotter to stay up to date on issues concerning the NSF and science policy news.

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