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Poli-Sci and the Rest Will Follow

New efforts in by Republicans in Congress to require that the National Science Foundation ensure that the studies it funds meet certain criteria that lawmakers would judge have stirred up questions about whether any science may be safe from grant-level oversight by lawmakers.

LiveScience contributor Wynne Parry writes that the efforts by Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have created "a battle over science" by trying to make NSF justify to Congress the value to society of the research projects that it funds.

Writing in Science today, Columbia University Professor Kenneth Prewitt says that Coburn's recent success in forcing NSF to certify that any political science projects it funds are promoting the national security and economic interests of the US could open the door to even broader efforts to meddle in the scientific enterprise.

"Every scientific discipline has a stake in undoing the damage inflicted on political science, and, in fact, to the national interest, by the Coburn criteria," Prewitt says, adding that scientists "should vigorously contest any effort to apply those criteria more broadly."

This week, Smith proposed legislation that would expand on Coburn's political science clause and require that NSF certify that all of its research advances "the national health, prosperity, and welfare" of the US.

Prewitt says there are there are three major problems with these sorts of rules, which enable lawmakers to "micromanage" science funding.

Rules like these favor research with near-term benefits, but overlook the long-term potential of lines of inquiry that may pay off in unknown ways. He says that Congress has a history of supporting both present and future-oriented research, the likes of which led to the development of the Internet.

"Today, we cannot know how and when the science of the Higgs boson subatomic particle will prove useful. But conditions will change; the knowledge will be used," Prewitt writes.

Criteria like that in Coburn's amendment also "weaken the way science builds theories," and miss the larger point that "science is an interconnected enterprise."

Lastly, the peer review process will be hurt by such rules, Prewitt argues, because "Congressional intimidation" will lead scientists to pursue the kinds of projects that lawmakers want, and avoiding those that some do not want, such as research that hits political hot-buttons, like studies involving climate change, stem cells, and evolution.

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