House panel calls – once again – for greater congressional oversight of research proposals

 

The U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology earlier this month released its annual filing known as the Views and Estimates.  The committee, which is responsible for oversight of nonmilitary, nonbiomedical federally supported research and which oversees major research-funding agencies (including the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Energy), reiterated its past calls for lawmakers to  play a larger role in the decision-making processes at those agencies.

Though the document expresses the committee’s commitment to the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 and expresses support for science that benefits the taxpayer, it includes a number of caveats that, if implemented, will impact the NSF and the DOE’s science office, both of which fund members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

The committee indicates that it seeks to rebalance research priorities – emphasizing physical science under the assumption that tilting funding in that direction will yield the greatest return on investments for taxpayers in the forms of new jobs and industries.

The proposed rebalancing would require 70 percent of NSF;s research and related activities funding to go to the directorates for math and physical science, computer and information science and engineering, biological sciences, and engineering. The document doesn’t mention funding percentages for the directorates for social and behavioral science or geosciences. By comparison, in fiscal 2016, the four former directorates received 65.3 percent of the NSF’s research and related activities appropriations; therefore, any inflation in their appropriations likely would squeeze the budgets of the other directorates.

The DOE’s science office faces a similar dilemma. The committee proposes prioritizing research funding for energy and computing research programs and offsetting biological and environmental research allocations.

Why is this important? In past years, similar proposals have been criticized and rejected by both the research community and members of Congress. President Donald Trump’s proposed skinny budget put forward last week, however, may signal a change on the Hill that could legitimize the committee’s oversight proposals. Furthermore, under former President Barack Obama’s administration, there were no drastic reductions in support for research, and specific disciplines were not dismissed.  Those times seem to be gone.

While the committee’s job is to support and bolster America’s scientific competiveness, it continues to do the opposite.  Support for science and innovation should be devoid of political caveats that diminish one discipline over the other or force agencies driven by scientific discovery and priorities developed by actual researchers to submit to congressional scrutiny driven by uninformed ideologies and policies.  In practice, that would be picking winners and losers, which is something that U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the committee, appears to be against.

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