Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

The FIRST Act: Is Congress imposing too many restrictions on scientists?

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By: Joseph P. Tiano, Ph.D.

The target of the FIRST Act is the National Science Foundation (NSF) but scientists everywhere should be concerned by some of the provisions it contains. Especially alarming are the provisions dealing with funding allocations and those dealing with determining a grant’s merit (the first two bullet points under the section titled “Potential Negatives”). On March 10th 2014 Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, along with Larry Bucshon (R-Indiana), Chairman of the House Research and Technology Subcommittee, introduced the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014 (H.R. 4186). The bill is still in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and has yet to be brought to the floor for a vote. The bill contains many NSF provisions but those centered on eliminating wasteful spending, i.e., funding grants Congress deems useless, are drawing the most criticism from scientists. What is in the FIRST Act The FIRST Act is 130 pages long and contains many wide-ranging provisions. Below are a few highlights with the potential to benefit the scientific community and a few highlights that many institutions (American Institute of Physics, National Science Board, Association of American Universities, and many other science-focused societies and institutions) fear will harm the scientific community. Potential Positives • The bill takes steps to improve science education in the U.S. by broadening the definition of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to include computer science; by allowing NSF funding to be used to support student participation in nonprofit competitions, out-of-school activities and field experiences related to STEM education; and by broadening secondary school students’ access to, and interest in, careers that require academic preparation in STEM subjects. • The bill supports President Obama’s BRAIN initiative by instructing the NSF to support research activities related to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. • The bill would ban researchers found guilty of falsification, fabrication or plagiarism from receiving NSF grants or extensions for 5-10 years. • The bill increases NSF funding for FY2015 by 1.5% from the current FY2014 level of $7,171.9 million to $7,279.5 million. Although well intentioned it is not even enough to keep up with inflation. Potential Negatives The National Science Board’s greatest concern: • The bill authorizes funding levels for individual directorates or sub-agencies within the NSF rather than authorizing a single budget for the NSF and allowing it the flexibility to deploy its funds where it believes will generate the most benefit. For example, the bill would reduce funding for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences by 28.4% from the current FY2014 level of $256.85 million to $200 million for FY2015 without any input from the NSF. The major concern of most scientists: The bill will require that the NSF provide clear justifications for why the grants that they fund are in the national interest. A summary of this section from states that this bill allows NSF to award grants “only if it makes, and justifies in writing, an affirmative determination that the grant or agreement is worthy of federal funding and meets certain other criteria [is in the national interest].” Page 14 of the bill defines what constitutes national interest: “increased economic competitiveness; advancement of the health and welfare of the American People; development of a STEM workforce and increased public scientific literacy in the U.S.; increased partnerships between academia and industry in the U.S.; support for the national defense of the U.S.; or promotion of the progress of science in the U.S.” Page 15 specifies that “Public announcement of each award of Federal funding…shall include a written justification from the responsible NSF official that a grant…meets the requirements of [the national interest of the U.S.].” Is peer review compromised? • Page 15 of the bill states that “Nothing in this section shall be construed as altering the NSF’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications.” However, many scientists disagree and interpreted this section of the bill as interfering with the peer review process by imposing political agendas. • The bill stipulates that principal investigators who have received more than 5 years of NSF funding at any point in their careers (except grad school and postdoc training) can only receive additional NSF funding by contributing “original, creative, and transformative research under the grant.” “Questionable” research projects One of the goals of the FIRST Act is to reduce wasteful spending by the NSF. Since at least 2010 Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has released an annual report on government spending called “Wastebook: A Guide to Some of the Most Wasteful Government Spending” in which he highlights the government’s 100 most wasteful projects of the year. Although no department is safe from being singled out the NSF appears to be disproportionally targeted making up 10% (8/100 in 2010; 15/100 in 2011; 12/100 in 2012; 7/100 in 2013) of the most wasteful projects – its $7.2 billion budget represents less than 0.5% of total government spending. By comparison the NIH made up 2.5% of the most wasteful projects and its $30.1 billion budget is about 4x more than the NSF. Many of the NSF projects that were singled out were used as justification for sections the FIRST Act. Some of my NSF favorites are: (edited for brevity) In 2008 the University of California-Irvine received $100,007 from the NSF to analyze and understand the ways in which players of World of Warcraft, a popular multiplayer game, engage in creative collaboration. NSF awarded over $600,000 to the Minnesota Zoo to create a wolf avatar video game called WolfQuest. NSF provided $216,884 in funding to the University of California Berkeley and Stanford University to study Candidate Ambiguity and Voter Choice. In 2011 researchers at the University of California-Riverside received an NSF grant of almost $150,000 to create a video game called RapidGuppy for cell phones and other mobile devices. The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange received $300,000 from the NSF to teach the public about the origins of matter through a unique performance experience, “The Matter of Origins.” The group produced a two-part experimental program that it performed at Universities. NSF awarded a multi-year grant to study the impact of women on the Icelandic textile industry from the Viking Era to the 19th Century. In 2012 the NSF supported the creation of “Prom Week,” a video game simulating all the social interactions of the event. The project used part of a $516,000 grant from NSF. Purdue University researchers used part of a $350,000 NSF grant to examine the benefit golfers might gain from using their imagination. The work was also supported previously by part of a $1.1 million NIH grant. The Civilians, a New York City-based theatre company, received $697,177 from the NSF to create a musical about climate change and biodiversity. My favorite The “Green Ninja” is a cartoon superhero created to motivate “kids to take action on climate change.” Eugene Cordero, one of the creators, says “the goal of the project is to make the Green Ninja the new Smokey the Bear. “Support for the Green Ninja originally came from the National Science Foundation, but now includes $390,000 in funding from NASA.” (Figure 2) NSF provided Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology with $2.9 million to create the “City as a Living Laboratory” initiative throughout Indianapolis. Project officials hope to use the money “to create sites along six Indianapolis waterways where arts and science will be used to educate the public about Indianapolis’s water system.” Yale University launched a project in 2005 with funding from the NSF to study the oddities of the duck penis. In 2009, the school received an additional $384,989 to continue its work. Are some of these projects wasteful? Maybe, okay, probably, okay, fine, yes, they are wasteful. I mean why we are spending $400,000 to create a new climate change superhero called the green ninja when 60% of the U.S. is overweight, antibiotic resistance is a real threat to become the norm and there is an Ebola outbreak in Africa. It is easy to get distracted and single out a handful of wasteful projects as evidence that the entire system of peer review is broken but that would be irresponsible and dangerous. Is peer review (for grants) perfect? Peer review is not perfect, nothing is. There will always be a small percentage of grants being funding that from the onset probably should not have been funded. This is because the grants never had a chance to succeed (poorly conceived) or because their potential findings would not have yielded important or relevant results (of course no one can truly say whether particular findings will be relevant or important ten years in the future but that is a discussion for another time). Maybe the price we pay for the immense success of peer review is a small amount of waste. It is a fact peer review works – the scientific and medical achievements of the 20th century alone are proof of its success! If this is the case, that we accept the small amount of waste for the huge payoffs, then peer review should not be meddled with. But maybe we can do better? Whether you think peer review is perfect the way it is or whether you think it needs tweaked, the FIRST Act does not appear to provide the correct solution and may end up doing more harm than good.  References The FIRST Act National Science Board Statement Senator Tom Coburn’s wastebooks The Green Ninja


Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 14, 2015 at 9:00 am

Posted in Essays

Tagged with ,

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