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Round and Round We Go

The back-and-forth between the US National Science Foundation and the House of Representatives committee that oversees is currently at a stalemate, writes Jeffrey Mervis at ScienceInsider, but may soon boil over.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has been calling on NSF to justify some of its funding decisions. He has also drafted legislation aimed at changing how NSF conducts its review process. In particular, the agency would have to certify that all the research it funds advances the "health, prosperity, or welfare" of the US.

As Mervis now reports, congressional staffers have been pouring over the particulars of 20 specific grants funded by NSF — the Republican aides are searching for evidence of Smith's contention that the agency is wasting taxpayer money while the Democratic aides looking for ways to counter any such claims.

NSF, Mervis notes, resisted sharing information on the peer review process, but complied on the conditions that the grant reviewers would remain anonymous and that the files could not leave the agency's building nor be photocopied. It has also, he adds, assented to share information on 30 more awards.

The awards under scrutiny, Mervis says, often involve research conducted outside the US and include a number that are funded by the Social, Behavioral and Economic sciences directorate.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) says Smith is "go[ing] after specific peer-reviewed grants simply because the Chairman personally does not believe them to be of high value."

Smith, though, says he is exercising his responsibility to over see the agency. "Our efforts will continue until NSF agrees to only award grants that are in the national interest," he said in an email to ScienceInsider.

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