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With budget cuts looming, US science strives to look useful

NSB.logoMod.JPGIt’s been a week of budget mayhem in Washington and the impact of what is almost certain to be a tougher fiscal climate in 2012 is making itself felt in all kinds of ways.

One example is the now often repeated mantra that investment in science and technology can become a driver of economic prosperity. Exactly how research dollars can be optimized for this — or whether they should be — are long debated questions. What does not seem to be up for debate if that if government funded science is to continue to thrive in the US it had better look useful.

That was the message conveyed on 28 and 29 July during the latest meeting of the National Science Board (NSB), the body that governs the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia. Many of the board’s deliberations revolved around how science funded by the NSF needs to further the administration’s far-reaching national goals, such as creating jobs and reviving a moribund US economy. In the context of such discussions, slogans such as “bringing science to society” fly around the room like bosons in a particle collider.

For instance, yesterday NSF director Subra Suresh and John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced the launch of a new NSF grant program called I-Corps (short for Innovation Corps). Meant to bridge the gap between bench science and innovation, the program invites principal investigators with an existing or recent NSF grant, to apply for one of 100 grants of up to US$50,000 to help turn newly discovered knowledge into marketable technologies, products and processes.

“NSF’s core mission is to fund basic research in all fields of science and engineering,” said Suresh at the conference. “I-Corps supports this mission by helping to transform scientific output funded by NSF into technological innovation.”

Through the program, principal investigators and student team members will be paired up with volunteer entrepreneurial mentors from the private sector, Suresh said. The small grants are intended to help carry out team-generated ideas and may advance a project far enough for participation in other funding programs, such as the small business innovation research program (SBIR), which is administered through 11 federal agencies including NSF. A webinar on 2 August will explain the program further, Suresh said.

In another session, the board reiterated its support for the “broader impacts” criterion of its merit review process, by which the NSF determines which projects will receive funding. The controversial criterion, which requires that individual NSF grant applicants and their reviewers address a proposal’s relevance to broad national goals (such as increased economic competitiveness, increased diversity in science participation, improvements in science and technology education, increased national security, and so on), has received criticism from the scientific community for years. Complaints of vagueness, confusion and inconsistency in the review process, which came up in a Congressional hearing earlier this week, spurred the National Science Board to begin a review of the criteria last year and draw up a revised set.

Last week marked the end of the public comment period on the pair of new, revised criteria. During the meeting, members of the Task Force on Merit Review reported that proposed revisions had met both strong praise and fierce criticism from the community. But the team gave the impression that “broader impacts” isn’t going anywhere. It’s part of NSF’s legal mandate to apply NSF funded science to advance the nation’s goals, they said.

“One thing we want to do is make sure we’re satisfying the intent of the legislation,” says task force chair John Bruer, President of the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, adding that they are still keeping their colleagues’ concerns in mind. “What we want to do is write it up in a clear way and make it meaningful so that we really get scientists to engage in this and it’s not a cynical exercise.”

After taking public comment into account and making final revisions, the task force will make recommendations to the NSB in December.

By then the budget wars for 2012 may well have reached fever pitch, and looking engaged — and useful — will be a very good thing indeed.


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