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article imageBill proposed by GOP may slash science funding Special

By Megan Hamilton     Apr 19, 2014 in Politics
Washington - The House Science, Space and Technology committee is proposing massive cuts to the National Science Foundation and this has science advocates worried.
A new bill proposed by the House GOP may slash millions of dollars in federal funding from the National Science Foundation's social, economic, and behavioral science programs. Science advocates are worried that the GOP is trying to push a "selective science" agenda in order to control which projects receive funding.
While most of the $7.28 billion budget would remain intact, the proposal, introduced by Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Indiana) would gut these sciences by 22 percent, according to the Huffington Post.
The reduced funding levels reflect the need to emphasize areas of science and research that promote economic growth, Smith said, adding that he questioned some of the research grants that the NSF has funded over the years. Among those he questioned: a $50,000 study of 17th century lawsuits filed in Peru and a $340,000 grant that involved fires set in New Zealand by early humans.
House Republicans have increasingly tried to politicize the scientific method, and this latest proposal--The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act or FIRST (HR 4186)--has science advocates concerned.
For Wendy Naus, the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, this latest effort by house republicans is an attempt at micromanaging the NSF and to pit scientific disciplines against each other.
"Social science is being targeted in the bill," she told Inside Higher Ed, noting that it should be up to the NSF, not Congress, to make decisions regarding the funding of each research category.
The bill would also place numerous restrictions on the NSF's research funding, including written justification as to why a research grant is in the national interest.
Inside Higher Ed notes that many advocates believe that supporting science is in the national interest and requirements like this oversimplify the role of scientific research. Basic research is necessary because it contributes to future breakthroughs, even though it may not show a clear link to a particular sector of the economy in advance, advocates say.
Key Democrats on the committee are also against the bill and Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) has denounced the proposal.
"For a committee that is supposed to be advancing science, we seem to be doing an awfully good job of advancing selective science," Kennedy told the Huffington Post.
Kennedy and fellow Democratic opponents contend that Republicans are using the proposed requirements as a way to block funding issues they are opposed to--such as climate change research.
HR 4186 is "an opportunistic approach to defunding or attacking certain areas of science that you either don't agree with or that you don't want to see what the results might actually be," Kennedy noted, and Smith has gone on record as saying he does not believe that climate change is being hastened by human activity.
Smith has received more than $500,000 from the oil and climate change advocates are understandably worried.
Science advocate Zack Kopplin has been working with Smith over time, to help the Congressman gain a better understanding of the scientific method, noting that he feels this is the approach that needs to be taken.
Patience and perseverance has worked well for Kopplin. The Baton Rouge native and founder of the Second Giant Leap Program, is used to going up against Republicans and has twice pushed for the repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). It's a law that promotes the teaching of creationism in Louisiana schools and also undermines the teaching of evolution. Another Senate hearing is scheduled for April 24 at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge. Kopplin is well known for his tenaciousness and has appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and been interviewed by Bill Moyers.
He's working in science and education policy to make sure that evolution and climate science are taught properly and that funding for science is increased, he says.
"Science funding must be increased across the board, because it offers an incredible return on investment," Kopplin told Digital Journal. "It is not the role of politicians to decide which funding is vital or not, because the point of doing research is to learn more. We can't pick and choose successful experiments before they happen--that's the point of doing the experiment. I don't believe it's a politician's job to choose which grants go to whom. I believe that is the role of the peer review process."
It's impossible to predict what exactly will result in economic growth. In general, broad investment in science will result in economic growth, he says.
Smith said in a statement last year that he would like to see some areas of science expanded.
"It is the job of Congress and the NSF to make sure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly. I support basic research, which can lead to discoveries that change our world, expand our horizons, and save lives. For example, we should prioritize projects like the brain mapping initiative that may help cure Alzheimer's, autism, epilepsy, and brain injuries."
In a letter to the Boston Globe , Smith noted that America needs to regain the scientific edge and FIRST adjusts priorities and targets investments in federally supported research.
"We all believe in academic freedom for scientists, but federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used to fund questionable research instead of higher priorities, such as quantum computers, which could be the next generation of fast computers," Smith wrote.
If this bill passes, and the peer review process is politicized, will politicians and the industries that fund them fall under the same scrutiny one day?
More about National Science Foundation, Zack Kopplin, Joseph Kennedy III, Lamar Smith RTX, Larry Bucshon RInd
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