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Justifying Science

The science community and the Obama Administration are "expressing serious alarm" about a bill being advanced by Republicans in the House of Representatives that would place new restrictions on research funded by the National Science Foundation, the Huffington Post reports.

The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST) bill proposes to "weed out projects whose cost can't be justified or whose sociological purpose is not apparent," Sam Stein writes, but opponents of the bill say it would strike at the heart of free inquiry, basic research, and the peer review process itself.

"We have a system of peer-review science that has served as a model for not only research in this country but in others," University of Pennsylvania's Bill Andresen says. "The question is, does Congress really think it has the better ability to determine the scientific merit of grant applications or should it be left up to the scientists and their peers?"

The White House's chief science advisor, John Holdren, says the bill would narrow the focus on NSF-backed research down to areas that are easily linked to national interests, but would forsake the agency's goal of advancing the progress of science.

The bill does offer a 1.5 percent funding bump to NSF, although that is short of the 4.9 percent increase the Democrats have proposed, and would not keep pace with inflation. It would tighten regulations on how NSF funding is allocated, such as by requiring the agency to ensure that its grant recipients are not also receiving funds from other federal agencies. That might prevent "double dipping," but it also might make it harder to pursue the kind of integrative, multidisciplinary research projects that are increasingly more common. The bill also would require that researchers seeking more than five years of funding show that they are contributing "original, creative, and transformative research under the grant."

"Ensuring that the government doesn't plow resources into stalled projects may be laudable. But scientists shudder at the idea that they, let alone politicians, can definitively tell whether research will pay dividends after half a decade," Stein writes.

The bill's author, Lamar Smith (R – Texas.) has not yet brought the bill to the floor of the science committee, possibly because he may not have enough votes to pass it, as Democrats are expected to oppose it.

The National Science Board has put out a statement criticizing the bill, saying its "inflexible" requirements could "discourage visionary proposals or transformative science at a time when advancing the decades-long US leadership in science and technology is a top priority."

The bill also has stirred concerns that politically-driven calculations could inhibit the freedom of investigators to pursue science. It is not hard to see how a scientist seeking to study the impacts of fossil fuels and climate change might be wary knowing that a grant proposal might have to be justified to Rep. Smith, who has questioned climate science and called for increasing fossil fuel production.

President Obama said recently in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences that he plans to work to "make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process."