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AAAS CEO Holt and Others Challenge ‘National Interest’ Bill on NSF Research

A bill requiring all National Science Foundation grants to pass a “national interest” test could hamper the sort of curiosity-driven research that “at first might have seemed esoteric and hardly in the public interest, but ultimately advanced human quality of life,” AAAS CEO Rush Holt writes in a letter to Issues in Science and Technology.

Holt joined several others, including both policy specialists and politicians, in responding to a recent article in the journal by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and sponsor of the “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act.” Smith argued that his legislation, which passed the House in February on a largely party-line vote, would give researchers an opportunity to better explain the potential value of their work and bring greater transparency to taxpayer-funded scientific research.

But critics writing in Issues,  published by National Academies Press, say the bill would add a level of review that could inhibit research pursued without regard for immediate application, the basic research that has been at the heart of NSF’s mission. “The problem is that there is no bright line between science that produces ‘useful’ outcomes and science that does not,” writes Norman R. Augustine, chair of a National Academies panel that in 2005 delivered an influential report,  Rising Above the Gathering Storm, calling for renewed U.S. investment  in science, technology, and education.

Among a long list of studies in the social sciences, physical sciences, environmental sciences, and mathematics that have benefited society, Holt writes, “I suspect many would not have passed a strict ‘national interest’ test.”

“If past research grants had only supported ‘national interests,’ would an investigation of glowing jellyfish have given rise to medical advances that won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2008?” Holt asks. “Would Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have used NSF grants to follow their curiosity about an algorithm for ranking Web pages? Grants focused exclusively on national interests could also discourage international research collaboration, which builds bridges between nations and stimulates new ideas by applying many different perspectives to a shared problem.”

“The bill’s backers may have objections to social science research or to proposals related to climate change or to something else, but they apparently lacked the political courage, the focus, or enough votes to have an open debate on those issues and to draft specific language,” writes Sherwood Boehlert, former Republican member of Congress from New York and former chair of the House Science and Technology Committee. “As a result, the measure effectively codifies a vague threat—Congress saying you’d better be good at divining what we think is a proper grant—and leaves it to NSF to guess what battle will come next, perhaps in the hope that the agency will timidly avoid it.”

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the ranking Democrat on Smith’s panel, notes in her letter that NSF’s stated mission is “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.” That mission is applied throughout the merit review process for each award, she says, and “the notion that every research project must, by itself, be justified by a congressionally mandated ‘national interest’ criterion is antithetical to how basic research works.”

Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, an advocacy group, writes that she and Smith can agree on one point, that it is “incumbent on the publicly funded science community—just as it is on elected and appointed government officials— to say and convey to the nonscience public: ‘I work for you— and I look forward to telling you how and answering your questions.”

Holt cited the recent excitement when NSF-funded scientists announced that had detected the chirping song of gravitational waves, ripples in space-time that confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity. “Yet, except for more accurate scientific measurements, the potential practical applications of the LIGO team’s discovery remain unknown for now,” Holt writes “Gravitational waves will not carry voices on data securely between continents. They will not sharpen human medical images. Colliding black holes will not provide power at any person’s electric meter. Still, the chirps were not the frivolous amusements of scientists. Einstein wasn’t thinking about everyday uses for general relativity in 1916, either, but his ideas have profoundly guided our understanding of the natural world. “

While Smith has said his proposal would not undermine basic science, Holt says, “his ‘emphasis on improving cybersecurity, discovering new energy sources, and creating new advanced materials’ to ‘create millions of new jobs’ seems to overlook the real value of long-term, fundamental scientific investigation