The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Energy Management held a hearing, “Broken Beakers: Federal Support for Research.”
Why It Matters
Federal investment in research has led to groundbreaking discoveries, such as the Google search engine, supercomputing, MRI technology, and GPS. However, some in Congress have called into question the value and validity of specific federally-funded projects and have made efforts to increase oversight and transparency of taxpayer-funded research.
Subcommittee members agreed on the importance of research and its daily benefits, but the role government should play in funding studies was split along party lines. The three main points of contention had to do with research merit, proposal selection process, and return on investment.
“Silly research” was used by Republicans on the panel to describe studies that had little economic value or low return on investment for taxpayers. Chairman Rand Paul (KY) picked apart titles and methodology affirming, “It’s not just silly sounding – the research is silly, and it needs to stop.” Democrats pointed out there is more to a study than its title, and while it may sound trivial, the research itself is important.
Ranking Member Gary Peters (MI) stressed how scientists must improve communication and articulation of the importance of their research to the public. Throughout the hearing, one message was that experts must communicate the importance of their studies, the value to society, and the application of their findings.
The subcommittee acknowledged the rigorous peer-review process, but Republicans and witnesses expressed concerns about biases, specifically when applicants are asked to suggest reviewers and when the selection team includes those vested in a particular subject matter. Democrats pointed out the need for selection boards to be knowledgeable on the topic and increased transparency created under the recently-enacted American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (P.L. 114-329).
Republicans argued that industry should be the largest funder for all research, and the need to be profitable and not just publishable will hold scientists accountable for the results produced. Democrats and some witnesses pointed out that basic, exploratory, and rare disease research don’t have huge profits, but that should not undermine their ability to be funded. Senator Kamala Harris (CA) and Dr. Rebecca Cunningham (Associate Vice President for Research-Health Sciences, University of Michigan) described major advances (e.g., augmented reality military training, nicotine patch, hepatitis B vaccine, and visible LED) that came from government funding and reminded the panel that substantial portions of grants help train the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce. Ranking Member Peters also described how federally-funded research complements work done in the private sector, but they each focus on different stages of the R&D cycle and are not substitutes for one another.
Chairman Paul used the hearing as an opportunity to tout his new bill, the BASIC Research Act (S. 1973). This bill would alter the grant review process by including people with no expertise in the subject area, replace the National Science Foundation’s Office of Inspector General with an entity to randomly select proposals to ensure their “value to the taxpayer,” and call for all federal grant applications to be made public.
“Rather than inject politics into this process, our discussion today should instead concentrate on how to safeguard the often unexpected process of discovery inherent in scientific inquiry while ensuring that federal dollars spent on research remains completely and fully accountable for taxpayers.” – Ranking Member Gary Peters (MI)
“I’m not opposed to research. In fact, I’m grateful for some of it every time I pick up my cellphone or go to the doctor’s office. But the question is whether the information [from the research] is available to everyone, the diversity of the selection teams [choosing the research], and the national benefit of it.” – Senator James Lankford (OK)
This was an information-gathering hearing. The BASIC Research Act bill has been introduced and referred to this committee, which could schedule a hearing on the bill.
Find Out More
Watch the full hearing
- Brian Nosek, Ph.D. (Executive Director, Center for Open Science, University of Virginia)
- Terence Kealey, Ph.D. (Adjunct Scholar, Cato Institute)
- Rebecca Cunningham, M.D. (Associate Vice President for Research-Health Sciences, University of Michigan)
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