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Anti-Science Republican Lawmakers Are Going After Crucial Research Grants

The House’s science hit list is going into overdrive.

by Michael Byrne
Nov 12 2014, 1:20pm

Lamar Smith. Image: Ryan J Reilly/Flickr

There's really no shortage of bad news for science in the United States given the looming Republican takeover of the Senate and, thus, both houses of Congress. There's the certain resurrection of a leaky Yucca Mountain, a green light for the Keystone XL pipeline, the likely ascendancy of climate science-denying, NASA-cutting cartoon Ted Cruz to chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and a general redoubling of the right's mindless obsession with obliterating federal programs.

Over the weekend, Science magazine's Jeffrey Mervis noted another sort of science-targeting that's a bit more subtle, yet completely chilling. This comes courtesy of Texas representative Lamar Smith, the chairman of the House science committee. Of particular concern is a favorite pastime of Smith's: the personal targeting of scientists engaged in basic research.

Last week, Smith set his sights on Ohio State University's Brad Bushman, recipient of a 2010 National Science Foundation grant for work studying the "effect of self-control on antisocial and prosocial behavior." At a hearing, Bushman was attacked by Smith as an example of wasted tax dollars, one of 11 projects singled out by the representative, including efforts at reducing snowmobile emissions, a study of "Wikipedia and the democratization of knowledge," and, of course, a grant related to climate change, for the PoLAR climate change education partnership.

This isn't Smith's first round of targets. The representative has been waging small-scale war against the NSF for over 18 months. It's included attacks on NSF officials, a steady stream of press releases ridiculing NSF-funded projects—most recently a project examining political speech on Twitter—and an attempt at a wholesale slashing of social science funding.

So far Smith has targeted around 60 grants, which is, according to the representative, just the tip of the iceberg. In an August letter to NSF director France Cordova, Smith declared, "the current review work is 5 percent complete, which implies that this oversight initiative will span at least 12 months." House staffers pouring through grant awards have been a regular sight at the NSF's Washington, DC headquarters. Other targets have included research into sustainable forests, a climate change education initiative, and a historical exploration of textiles and gender.

"The fight has rekindled the age-old question of how to assess the value of basic research. Most scientists say that peer review—using experts in a particular field—offers the best way to judge both the scientific merit and the societal value of a piece of fundamental research," Mervis notes. "And they object when politicians substitute their own judgment. But Smith says he's simply doing his job, questioning research that seems to him silly, obvious, or of low priority to society."

On Monday, the Association of American Universities fired back at Smith and his committee. In a statement, the AAU declared, "Our concern is that the Committee's current inquiry into the value of selected NSF grants, based primarily on their titles, is far from constructive. In fact, it is having a destructive effect on NSF and on the merit review process that is designed to fund the best research and to remove those decisions from the political process."

The statement goes on to blast the committee's demands for the names of grant peer reviewers, who are left anonymous for very good reason. The public shaming promised by the committee's reviewer outings can only discourage experts from participating in the process. The AAU statement also calls Smith and his committee's choice of targets "bizarre."

Smith's science hit list was toxic when his party was relegated to control of only one chamber of congress, and how it evolves or expands remains to be seen. Don't count on the situation improving.