How Do Politics Interfere with the National Science Foundation and NASA?

Why do Congress members members keep getting involved in scientists’ work? Is it because they really love science? In my opinion, this interference impedes scientists’ communities from setting their own priorities and from continuing their work. (I argued as much when I spoke to Senator Feinstein’s staff at her San Diego office recently.) But first I’ll describe how Representatives in the House Science Committee seek to interfere with the National Science Foundation’s peer-review process and how a Subcommittee Chair in the Senate interferes with NASA’s scientific programs. As budget negotiations begin for FY 2016, these issues take on additional importance.

Suppose the scientist Dr. X wrote a paper about her findings and wants to publish it. She’d submit it to a journal, where it would go through the peer-review process: a peer reviewer would review the paper and assess whether it is publishable and appropriate for the journal. When Dr. X submits a proposal for a research grant with a federal agency, such as with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the process works sort of similarly. More is at stake though, and a panel of reviewers review many proposals and assess their scientific merits.

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In the context of budget debates during the recession and ongoing “sequestration,” it’s natural that policy-makers would scrutinize agencies’ budgets. Nevertheless, in the federal R&D budgets by agency, the NSF’s is rather small—much smaller than the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, for example—and in any case, hasn’t the NSF been doing a good job? In spite of this, last year the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (“House Science Committee,” for short), chaired by Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), began “an unprecedented—and some say bizarre—intrusion into the much admired process that NSF has used for more than 60 years to award research grants,” according to science policy analyst Jeffrey Mervis.

Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX). Credit: Science Insider

Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX). Credit: Science Insider

In 1976, Senator William Proxmire (D–WI) attacked scientific research with the annual “Golden Fleece” Awards, the first of which went to the NSF. These awards and Proxmire’s grandstanding resulted in generating suspicion towards government spending on science. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) continued this legacy by criticizing primarily research grants in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) sciences. In response, a few years ago, a coalition of scientific groups started the Golden Goose Awards to highlight “examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.”

Lamar Smith’s current attack goes further than the Golden Fleece Awards by investigating the NSF’s peer-review process itself, and scientists are concerned about whether the process will remain confidential. Moreover, Smith would like to ensure that every research grant funded by the NSF is in the “national interest;” any other research, according to him, constitutes “wasteful spending.” It seems that Smith’s mission is to attack research in the social sciences, and at the same time he threatens to “compromise the integrity of NSF’s merit review system as part of this campaign,” according to House Science Committee member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX). (For more coverage, see these excellent articles in Science, National Geographic, and LA Times.)

Finally, on a more positive note, it seems that Smith and NSF Director France Córdova may eventually resolve their disagreements. Following a hearing on the NSF’s grant making policies and procedures, Smith backed down from his previous position and appears to have endorsed the NSF’s peer review system. This is encouraging, but I fear that the battle isn’t over.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Credit: AP)

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Credit: AP)

But it’s not just the NSF that has experienced politicians interfering in its work. NASA faces a somewhat similar situation. (The Environmental Protection Agency has also withstood attacks in recent weeks, but that’s another story.) Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), the new chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space, which oversees NASA, is getting involved in that agency’s work. At a budget hearing, Cruz questioned Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and NASA’s administrator, to explain NASA’s funding of earth sciences (also known as geosciences), which Cruz claimed are not “hard science.” Cruz argued that manned space exploration is NASA’s “core mission,” and earth sciences have nothing to do with that.

Bolden responded, “It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth’s environment, because this is the only place we have to live…We’ve got to take care of it. and the only way to take care of it is to know what’s happening.” Moreover, according to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Science magazine, one can’t decouple earth sciences and planetary sciences, which are inextricably linked. (For more coverage, also check out these articles in the Guardian, Slate, and Salon.)

Cruz is right that the proportion of NASA funding going to earth science research has increased over the past few years, but there is a reason for that. In my opinion, some people reporting on this in the news seem to focus on the misguided and ill-informed views of Senator Cruz when it comes to climate science in particular. But I think the issue here is that politicians shouldn’t generally interfere with scientists doing their work as best they can. Scientists in the space sciences (including earth sciences) periodically write reports known as Decadal Surveys, in which they set their short- and long-term priorities for investing funding and research. Though there could be more interaction and better communication between scientists and policy makers, especially when some research programs might have policy implications, that doesn’t mean that non-scientists know better when it comes to setting priorities for scientific research.

These debates don’t happen in a vacuum but are related to the larger context of federal budgets for science research, education, and public outreach. Negotiations for FY 2016 budgets are already underway, and just last week scientists and their allies advocated for a 5% increase to the NSF’s budget, primarily going to telescope construction projects and the Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Division, as well as an 11% increase to its education budget. The debates surely will continue, and I’ll keep you posted.

One thought on “How Do Politics Interfere with the National Science Foundation and NASA?

  1. Pingback: COMPETES Act: The House Science Committee’s Controversial Bill | Science Political

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