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Lawmakers aim to restrict US agency’s social-science programmes

Posted on behalf of Jessica Morrison. 

Conservative politicians in the US House of Representatives are renewing their push to limit the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) support for social-science research. The agency’s social, behavioural, and economic (SBE) sciences directorate would see its recommended funding cut by 42%, under a proposal introduced on 10 March by Representative Lamar Smith (Republican, Texas), the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

The legislation, which would reauthorize NSF for fiscal years 2014‒15, also seeks major changes to the peer-review process by which the agency awards its grants. Smith’s plan would require the NSF to provide written justification that every grant it awards — in all fields — is in the “national interest”. That is defined broadly as research that satisfies at least one of six goals: economic competitiveness, health and welfare, scientific literacy, partnerships between academia and industry, promotion of scientific progress and national defence.

Details of Smith’s plan first surfaced about a year ago, sparking fierce criticism from social scientists and the broader US research community that seems sure to renew with the release of the new bill. Smith and his supporters argue that in a time of limited budgets, focusing on research areas that produce the clearest benefits is wise. But critics worry that the “national interest” requirement will hobble NSF’s time-tested peer review process.

“We don’t build rockets. We don’t usually have patentable goods,” says Rick Wilson, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and a former NSF programme director. “For a lot of these folks, it may just be that they really don’t believe that what we do has scientific merit.”

The bill recommends a budget of $7.17 billion for NSF in 2014, the current fiscal year — equal to what the agency actually received in the budget deal enacted in January — and $7.29 billion for 2015. In an unusual move, the proposal also lays out a detailed plan for distributing that cash to NSF’s seven research directorates. For example, it seeks to cap SBE funding at $150 million per year in 2014 and 2015, well below the directorate’s actual 2014 budget of $257 million.

“I don’t understand the antagonism toward the social, behavioral, and economic sciences,” says Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington DC.

Lubell also finds fault with provisos that would restrict principal investigators to no more than five years of funding for a particular project, and allow researchers to include just five citations in grant proposals.

The full text of the bill can be found here. It will receive a public airing on 13 March, when a House subcommittee plans to discuss and vote on the measure.

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