As World War II drew to a close, Dr. Vannevar Bush, head of the U.S. Scientific Research and Development Program, called for “a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge.”
This vision led to the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950, and now, nearly 70 years later, lawmakers are starting to plan for the agency’s next 70 years. Last week, the Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on NSF’s future priorities as part of a series to gather input for the agency’s reauthorization later this year. Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (IL-3) stressed the committee’s desire “to maximize the benefits that we can reap from federal investments in science” and maintained that there is “unambiguous evidence” that basic research is not frivolous in the “tremendous societal benefits” it has yielded. Dr. Maria Zuber (Chair, National Science Board) laid out three guidelines for the agency as it looks to its next 70 years: maintaining investment, creating a STEM-capable workforce, and sustaining the trust and confidence of the public. Chairwoman Barbara Comstock (VA-10) agreed with all three items and stressed that many lawmakers in attendance were “very interested” in maintaining budget levels.
Representative Paul Tonko (NY-20) raised specific concern about proposed cuts to geoscience programs at other agencies in the president’s budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2018 (NSF was not addressed in the proposal), saying these would hurt national and economic security and public health and safety. In response, Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy (Acting Chief Operating Officer, NSF) agreed and listed several NSF Geosciences Directorate research projects that help us to better understand our planet. For example, physical and chemical ocean and atmospheric research can have applications to ocean management and fisheries industries. Dr. Zuber stressed the importance of the geosciences in understanding the effects of coastal erosion. Representative Tonko continued by highlighting the high costs of extreme weather events’ disaster relief like Hurricane Sandy, to which Dr. Zuber stressed the need for more research on these acts that are “devastating to the economy.”
Scientific integrity and transparency were also common themes. Ranking Member Lipinski took care to correct statistics stated in the first hearing — the number of research misconduct cases over the last four years is 75 (not 175). He noted a “striking” observation from the corrected number – over the last decade, the trend in misconduct cases remains flat, not increasing. He also pointed out a problem with a previous suggestion by lawmakers that government agencies should only be allowed to make regulations based on studies that post all data online because, in practice, this would make most research off limits to agencies. Dr. Jeffrey Spies (Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Center for Open Science and Assistant Professor, University of Virginia) agreed that some research “simply can’t be open” due to data privacy, security, or even proprietary advantage. He offered solutions including keeping data private but releasing all methods or allowing data analysis online without making raw numbers available.
Democrats on the committee repeatedly returned to the future of NSF funding. They argued against previous efforts by Congress to designate directorate-level funding for the agency (with social and geosciences research currently deprioritized) and insisted that Congress should have a limited oversight role in this process. Representative Elizabeth Esty (CT-5) stressed that scientists themselves have a “better sense of what’s going on,” and Congress should defer to their expertise. Dr. Zuber pointed out that funding specific directorates can create silos that impede interdisciplinary and inter-directorate work. Representative Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1) agreed, adding that the role of Congress is to set priorities and not to limit specific fields or risk-taking research. Dr. Ferrini-Mundy said that NSF is careful to maintain “prudent and responsible” investments of taxpayer dollars, and she added that “keeping basic investment in all areas” is important to the development of new ideas and theories.