Sam Stein notes the latest effort by anti-science Republicans to strip funding from federal agencies that might actually conduct science rather than bow to the GOP corporate masters. The bill is called the FIRST Act, and it would subject all projects for federal funding for the National Science Foundation to be reviewed by politicians, and not the scientific community for merit.
Titled the “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014," the bill would put a variety of new restrictions on how funds are doled out by the National Science Foundation. The goal, per its Republican supporters on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, would be to weed out projects whose cost can't be justified or whose sociological purpose is not apparent.
For Democrats and advocates, however, the FIRST Act represents a dangerous injection of politics into science and a direct assault on the much-cherished peer-review process by which grants are awarded.
"We have a system of peer-review science that has served as a model for not only research in this country but in others," said Bill Andresen, the associate vice president of Federal Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania. "The question is, does Congress really think it has the better ability to determine the scientific merit of grant applications or should it be left up to the scientists and their peers?"
In recent weeks, the Obama administration and science agencies have -- in less-than-subtle terms -- offered up similar criticisms of the FIRST Act. At an American Association for the Advancement of Science forum on Thursday, presidential science adviser John Holdren said he was "concerned with a number of aspects" of the bill.
"It appears aimed at narrowing the focus of NSF-funded research to domains that are applied to various national interests other than simply advancing the progress of science," Holdren said.
And of course this bill designed to "combat waste and fraud" in federal science projects would really exist to allow Republicans to shut down things they don't like: climate change research, green energy projects, and research into the social costs of things like firearms, pharmaceuticals, our food supply and anything else the GOP's corporate masters might be opposed to. Republican politicians would be running America's science research. If that sentence doesn't terrify you, nothing will.
Another part of the bill stipulates that if an investigator receives more than five years of funding from the NSF, he or she can only get additional funding by contributing "original creative, and transformative research under the grant." Ensuring that the government doesn't plow resources into stalled projects may be laudable. But scientists shudder at the idea that they, let alone politicians, can definitively tell whether research will pay dividends after half a decade.
These quips merely feed a larger problem that Democrats and the White House have with the bill. Rather than offering a single budget level for the NSF, the FIRST Actauthorizes levels for individual directorates, or sub-agencies, within the foundation. The big winners in this equation are the Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering and the Directorate for Engineering. The loser is the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate, which is poised to get a 22 percent budget cut from fiscal year 2014 levels.
So yes, the bill is designed to crush long-term projects like climate science, social science, and green energy and instead empower the stuff corporations can use to make big money fast. That's what "science" means to Republicans.