Friday, March 14, 2014

FIRST legislation not a good prescription for science

I rarely mention anything about politics or legislation in this space, but this rates an exception: not just because my good friend. Dr. Cherie McCollough, whose thinking I greatly respect, sent me an alert on this, but because it'll shape U.S. government science-related polities for years to come.
The House is debating a new act to fund the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, but the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act (H.R. 4186) includes some questionable provisions that have a whole lot of scientists upset. 
A lot of the hubbub concerns a major cut to the social and behavioral sciences.  As valuable as these can be (although everyone has a "silliest grant" story), I'll let other people fight that one: the right balance between social science and hard science funding is beyond my expertise.
There are some logical things in the bill: the need for a "no fraud" statement from each researcher might be seen as duplicative, but I like having it clearly in law.   There are also head-scratchers: what's the relevance of saying "A maximum of five citations in any grant proposal?" But my major problems are twofold:
1.  The bill doesn't give the NSF and NIST the needed growth ("topline" in Washington parlance) to keep pace with research and educational needs in a fast-changing, technology-driven world.  Even granting there are competing needs and yawning deficits, NSF/NIST funding has to be protected and at least modestly boosted if we're going to be a leading nation in science, technology, and commerce.   
2. The biggest puzzler is the access provisions. If the taxpayers fund work, the taxpayers should get access to it, free or at cost.  There's an existing understanding that publishers of papers can withhold free access for 12 months, but this bill would extend that to two to three years instead of reducing it. That's crazy.

Here's an interview with the author, Rep. Lamar Smith, where he explains his thinking. He seems to focus entirely on some questionable grants to the exclusion of the bigger picture, although the interviewer could have done a better job of probing for specifics.  
If you agree he's gotten it wrong, here's his contact information.  Tell him what you think. Don't be shy. Last I checked, Congress still works for us.

1 comment:

Cherie Mac said...

Thank you for posting Matt. In an era where research dollars are getting increasingly hard to find and funding more competitive - and given the "Race to the Top" STEM initiative that the President has shepherded and touted as his claim to educational progress, this legislative enactment is not only counterproductive, it is clearly a way where those who have no clue make policy with effects that are far reaching and shattering to science research and science education. By claiming that a lot of bad research is being done, the naysayers fail to realize that every single research proposal goes through a rigorous process of peer review by a panel of expert scientists and researchers. Every dollar is accounted for in budgets and required paperwork that is overwhelming and extremely time consuming. Adding more levels of bureaucracy to this process will make it even more difficult to do what is most important - THE RESEARCH. I am shocked that with all the publicity that we have seen regarding the need for research in STEM education and STEM research, this legislation has come forward - but it has.
I appreciate you helping to spread the (BAD) news - contact your representatives and let them know this cannot pass.