FIRST Act Markup – As Good As It Gets?

After months of speculation and a subcommittee markup in March, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology marked up the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act (FIRST Act) on May 21. As expected, Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and his colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle defended the provisions of the bill while Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and her colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle spoke against the bill.

Chairman Smith opened the hearing lauding the FIRST Act as a step toward responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars while simultaneously noting the need for increased congressional oversight of the National Science Foundation (NSF). During both his opening and subsequent remarks, Chairman Smith stated that the bill would be in the best interest of the scientific community by pointing out that the spending level in the bill is slightly higher than in President Obama’s budget request. He failed to note that the increase would not keep pace with inflation. Smith also highlighted the need to redirect funding at NSF to emphasize greater focus on physical sciences and engineering. He added those grants should be justified before Congress as being in the national interest.

In her opening statement, Johnson spoke against the bill, emphasizing that there was no need to regulate the scientific process by shackling the already exemplary NSF. Quoting the proverb behind her on the Committee room wall, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” Johnson reminisced about the first America COMPETES bill from 2007 and its reauthorization in 2010, both of which brought together members from both major political parties with a vision of America’s future. Johnson then lamented that the FIRST Act, rather than show vision, was an inflammatory piece of legislation that sowed distrust of scientists and injected politics into the scientific process. On the heels of her statement, Congressman Dan Maffei (D-NY), Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD), Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and others on the minority side also spoke against the majority bill, echoing Johnson’s remarks and casting doubt on the need to treat scientists with suspicion.

During the markup, Edwards also identified a problematic technicality with the current bill, which authorizes funding for NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) for FY 2014. She pointed out that FY14 is nearly half over and that the agencies are currently spending funding appropriated in the Fiscal Year 2014 Omnibus bill passed by Congress. How, then, she asked, could this bill authorize funding that has been appropriated and begun to be spent? Edwards pressed Smith, who said that the appropriate adjustments would be made on the House floor. However, Edwards pointed out that it was unclear that such adjustments could actually be made. She then asked why the committee was holding a markup for a bill that would need further adjustments after the hearing. It is also noteworthy that the FIRST Act authorizes funding for the NSF below what the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee put in its FY15 bill.

Edwards also discussed a Washington Post op-ed that appeared on the day of the markup authored by Cornell University President David Skorton. In that piece, Skorton opined that unfounded attacks on social and behavioral sciences at the NSF were harmful, and that research coming out of those fields were extraordinarily valuable: “Addressing such problems as poverty and disease depends as much on a mastery of the broader issues that drive political and economic issues as it does on the science and technology involved.”

During the hearing, 28 amendments to the bill were introduced, almost all of them by minority members seeking to remove portions of the bill they and the scientific community believe to be most damaging. Among amendments proposed was one to remove directorate-level funding, striking section 106 requiring NSF to determine that a grant or cooperative agreement is in the national interest. Another amendment would have struck section 115 of the bill requiring that findings and conclusions of a principal investigator receiving a research grant from the NSF not contain any falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism and prohibit NSF from providing grants to a principal investigator who violated this requirement. Yet another amendment would have struck section 116, which states that the portion of a peer-reviewed grant application to NSF supporting the credentials of the principal investigator may not include more than five citations to articles published by the principal investigator.

All of the amendments failed during voice votes, but their sponsors requested recorded votes for the record: those have been scheduled for May 28th at 5:00pm. Notably, the National Science Board (NSB), adviser to the National Science Foundation, took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement against the FIRST bill as currently drafted. Johnson introduced statements that opposed the legislation, including the NSB’s, into the record.

In the end, it was clear that the Majority had every intention of passing the bill with the offensive provisions intact. What is unclear, however, is whether Smith will be able to secure House floor time for consideration of the bill and whether the Senate will take up its companion bill before the end of the session.

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