House Science Committee Holds Second Hearing on Future of NSF; Legislation Likely this Year

On March 21, the Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held its second hearing in as many weeks to discuss legislation to be introduced later this year governing the National Science Foundation (NSF). A summary of the first hearing is available here. The theme of the hearing was “Future Opportunities and Challenges for Science.” Witnesses included Joan Ferrini-Mundy, Acting NSF Chief Operating Officer, Maria Zuber, Chair of the National Science Board, Jeffrey Spies, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer for the Center for Open Science at the University of Virginia, and Keith Yamamoto, Vice Chancellor for Science Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Francisco.

In her opening remarks, Subcommittee Chair Barbara Comstock (R-VA) characterized the challenge before the Committee as identifying how NSF can continue to keep the U.S. at the frontier of science while also setting priorities in a time budgetary constraint and ensuring every grant is in the “national interest.” She also noted that she hopes NSF can encourage more transdisciplinary science in order to address grand societal challenges and breakdown disciplinary silos.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), a political scientist by training, continued to address attacks on social science research made by members in the majority, stating that some believe certain fields of research are a frivolous use of taxpayer dollars. However, Rep. Lipinski expressed that there is “unambiguous evidence to the contrary.” Further, he addressed the arguments made by some that the social sciences do not need a dedicated directorate [the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate] and that other NSF directorates (such as Engineering or Math and Physical Sciences) can simply fund pieces of SBE research when needed. If supported only as an add-on, said Lipinski, the quality of the SBE research would suffer, including America’s capabilities in cyber defense, health, and other fields. Rep. Lipinski added that “unfettered research across all fields serves as the best foundation for discoveries and innovations” and that setting priorities does not need to come at the expense of entire directorates or fields of science.

Full Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) cautioned her colleagues on the committee to not conflate “reproducibility” with scientific misconduct, which has been a tendency by some. She added that if we care about the next generation of STEM workers and topics of concern like national security, for example, policy makers should listen to the experts on their recommendations for the future of the NSF and science enterprise.

Dr. Ferrini-Mundy testified on behalf of NSF and used her testimony to highlight four features of NSF’s approach to tackling its broad mission. First is supporting fundamental research across all fields of science and engineering, recognizing that the downstream impacts of a project are not often immediately apparent. Second, ensuring NSF has the flexibility it needs to fund the very best ideas from wherever they come, which includes high risk projects with potential for high reward.

Third, Dr. Ferrini-Mundy identified the many partnerships that enable NSF to do its work, including collaborations across government, the international community, private sector, and the broader scientific research community. Finally, she highlighted NSF’s dependence on a steady supply of well-prepared people representing the diversity of the population, adding that all individuals should have the opportunity to be inspired by and included in the STEM enterprise.

Dr. Zuber framed her testimony by first asking, “Will the world’s richest and most powerful nation continue to invest in our future? Do we still want to be the first to know, to understand, to discover, to invent?” She made three suggestions: (1) maintain the federal government’s unique investment in discovery research across all fields, noting that the private sector will not invest in open questions the way NSF can; (2) prepare a STEM capable workforce so all Americans can participate in and benefit from scientific progress; and (3) specifically for the research community, maintain the trust and confidence of the American public. She applauded NSF for historically not picking winners and losers among the sciences or the directorates, and for not assuming in advance where the big discoveries will come.

In his testimony, Dr. Spies spoke about ways to increase openness, integrity, and reproducibility of scientific research, offering recommendations aimed at “making an already efficient [NSF] process better.” He suggested that “science doesn’t have an honesty problem, it has a communication problem.”  Openness should be the default for science communication, though it currently is not, he contends. His recommendations include: (1) collecting evidence to encourage change; (2) developing technology to enable change; (3) disseminating knowledge to enact change; (4) offering incentives for embracing change; and (4) fostering inclusion and connection to propagate change.

Dr. Yamamoto made a case for NSF to lead in “transdisciplinary science.” Suggesting that “bureaucratic and fiscal walls” currently inhibit such work, NSF should consider creating a new organizational layer above the seven research directorates that would be responsible for coordinating big research ideas across the foundation, while maintaining funding authority of the individual directorates. He contends that by lowering the directorate barriers, NSF could better tackle grand societal challenges.

Several Committee members asked questions and expressed their support for the SBE sciences. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-WA) asked if it would be reasonable to assume that significant cuts to SBE would result in gaps in expertise. Dr. Ferrini-Mundy reiterated NSF’s “central commitment” to the SBE sciences and Dr. Zuber offered specific examples that further illustrate the value of investment in these sciences. Dr. Zuber added that she believes the SBE sciences are on the verge of a “revolution” – computation is being used across the social sciences just as much as in other domains, adding that social science has become very data driven and quantitative and that it would be a shame to divest at this point.

You can view the written witness testimony and an archived webcast on the Committee’s website.

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Posted in Issue 7 (April 4), Update, Volume 36 (2017)

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