What you need to know about newly proposed science funding legislation: Lamar Smith’s vision of our scientific future

Figure courtesy of blog.chron.com

Figure courtesy of blog.chron.com

Lamar Smith has been a busy man.  The Republican Congressman from Texas has long been interested in revamping how the government funds scientific research, but this interest could soon become a reality. Last week,Smith unveiled the newest version of the American COMPETES bill, which lays out his and the House science committee’s vision of 1) quantitative shifts in funding levels among governmental agencies and 2) regulations about how science should influence policy – this one has the potential to be much more worrisome.

Policy-making may not be the most exciting topic to many, but its outcomes affect all of us.  Scientists have to follow the money, so it is only in these areas that advancements can be made.  But it’s tough to look through a 189-page report to understand what’s going on – that’s where I come in!  I’d like to first lay out what the major proposals are in the bill  regarding what money should go where, and then give a brief critique about where I think it misses the point about how government should aid scientific spending.

So here’s the quick summary (all percentages are compared to the Presidential Office’s request):

1) Total budget unchanged: The committee and the President are on the same page in terms of total dollars spent across all departments – the proposal gives the same 7.723 billion dollars to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and 5.340 billion dollars to the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science as does Obama’s request.

2) Focus on basic science: This is Congressman’s Smith main message – the government should only fund basic science research that the private sector cannot support.  This means money taken away from ARPA-E (the agency that translates basic findings into applications), the social sciences, renewable research, environmental sciences, and education.  This money is then rerouted to basic science in fusion, engineering, biology, and computer science.

3) Climate change and renewables are not prioritized: Smithwho has pushed back against the mounting evidence for climate change, would now like to take 10% of the DOE’s Environmental Sciences budget and move it into fusion research.  Those funds would have likely been used for climate change research – one of the most pressing global issue in terms of potential cost, life loss, and reorganization of civilization.  Even worse, renewables and energy efficiency research is cut by 56%!

4) Congressional control over NSF funding: Previously, Congress has given NSF a large sum of money and left it up to the agency to distribute based on how scientists believe their efforts should be prioritized.  No more – Smith has proposed that specified funding for individual departments in line with his vision that government should only focus on basic sciences.

5) How science should inform policy: This last one is really strange.  The bill states that “results of any research, development, demonstration, or commercial application projects or activities of the [Energy] Department may not be used for regulatory assessments or determinations by Federal regulatory authorities.”  Why would this be included?  So we want to fund a bunch of science that we then cannot use to better inform how our government should operate?

So those are the big trends in my eyes.  Where to even begin?  I want to give Smith the benefit of the doubt.  His larger vision is one of focusing on basic science research.  He believes that it is the government’s responsibility to fund basic science because it is an area the private sector would not normally pursue due to the lack of returns on a timely basis.  I agree with this – basic science is the rich, nutrient-filled soil from which lucrative commercial products grow so we can eventually ask our smartphone for directions.  For these reasons it’s important to invest in fusion research, basic biological and computer sciences research, and the like, as Smith has indeed proposed to do.

But then I see the other choices in the proposed bill, and I can’t help but feel a strong partisan push against only particular areas of science that he (and other conservatives) are uncomfortable with.  Removing funding from the DOE environmental sciences division, which funds climate change research, seems irresponsible during a time when we’ve just surpassed 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere.  But doing so is in line with the Republican party line.  Cutting renewables funding by over half seems similarly difficult to comprehend but also along party lines.

This problem connects with the second major change – providing funding for particular departments rather than NSF as a whole.  This is a scary trend for scientists, ESPECIALLY those in basic research, because good science requires stable funding over long periods of time.  The heads of NSF know this and are able to provide this consistency, but a precedent of allowing whichever party is in power to quickly adjust funding levels to specific departments could create funding oscillations that kill important research projects.

And finally, the stipulation that findings cannot be used to inform regulatory assessments.  Unless I’m missing something (am I?), this seems like strong language to keep scientific findings that don’t mesh well with political views from influencing government policy (climate change anyone?).  I don’t see any other way of interpreting it.  This type of language is dangerous – the whole point of science is impartiality, to take the world as we are given it and use these facts to inform the best way to live with the world.  To take away this potential use of science in government is to leave us impotent to respond to an ever more complex world in a knowledgeable, informed way.

Here’s the take-home.  Although I do agree with Smith’s view of basic science as being an important cornerstone of government funding, I do not believe it begins and ends there.  Government exists to provide the common vision for the nation.  Supporting basic science is one way of doing this – to allow our knowledge to expand without the demands of immediate profit.  But our vision must go beyond this – it must encompass an idea of where we wish to head, something the free market will never tell us.  And that requires funding some applications research as well.

The free market does very well at efficiently allocating resources within short time frames but is widely known to fail at accounting for all external costs, especially those that accrue over long timescales – like environmental degradation!  This is where government must also step in – to allocate funds to prepare our country for a world that the blind market cannot see but shines with distinct possibility over the horizon.  This means we need to fund renewables research to slowly shift our economy from fossil fuel dependency.  This means we need to fund education research to find ways to improve how we prepare our younger generations for professional careers.  If we consider government as a guide, then basic science is still important, but so is renewable energy, environmental, social sciences, and education research.  We must always prioritize these sciences, central to our progress as a nation free of fossil-fuels, of acceptance and equality, and of educational accessibility and rigor.  Determining the specifics of this vision will take much argument and debate, but without the necessary science we won’t see which way we are walking into the future.

References

1)
Mervis, J., & Cho, A. (2015). House science chief unveils contentious vision for science Science, 348 (6233), 380-381 DOI: 10.1126/science.348.6233.380

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2 Responses to What you need to know about newly proposed science funding legislation: Lamar Smith’s vision of our scientific future

  1. andyextance says:

    So what happens from here? This has to be approved by both houses and the president right? Is that going to happen? Is it likely that compromise amendments will be made?

  2. jptrinastic says:

    Yes, the final bill will likely look significantly altered because it needs both Senate and Presidential approval. So compromises will likely be made and the final version will be quite different.

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