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New Bill Would Drastically Change Science Funding Priorities

A new bill would cut federal research in geoscience by 12%, and social science by 58%. Angry scientists say it’s a thinly veiled attempt to squash climate research, but the bill’s sponsors say they simply want to boost economic payoffs.

Last updated on May 18, 2015, at 5:43 p.m. ET

Posted on May 18, 2015, at 5:43 p.m. ET

Rep. Lamar Smith
Charles Dharapak / Associated Press / Via

Rep. Lamar Smith

Hurricanes, earthquakes and crime deserve less attention from scientists — along with climate change, and poverty — according to a bill facing a vote in Congress on Tuesday.

The "America Competes Reauthorization Act" builds on a 2010 law aimed at ensuring federal support for science and engineering education. But the new version has inflamed scientists, in part because it allows lawmakers, instead of scientists, to decide what science matters. This is the first time in 17 years that Congress has tried to tell the $7.3 billion National Science Foundation (NSF) what disciplines to invest in.

In an unusual move indicating its concern, the NSF released a statement earlier this month that was sharply critical of the Competes Act, saying the bill's calls for supporting science were contradicted at many points by its cuts and directives.

Climate scientists are particularly angry about the bill, which they see as a thinly veiled attempt to stifle research on global warming.

Look, @LamarSmithTX21 reiterates: #americaCOMPETES is about his vendetta against climate change research:

#AmericaCOMPETES imposes reviews of @NSF merit-review system- discouraging high-risk, innovative research essential to scientific progress

In April, the bill passed out of the House Science Committee headed by Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas on a party-line vote. Smith defended the bill in an op-ed in The Hill on Monday, saying it "sets priorities aimed at stimulating economic competitiveness and growth," at the expense of less useful research.

The bill calls for a flat NSF budget while cutting student funding there by 10%, geoscience by 12%, and social science by 58%. It also tells the agency to increase funding for basic research in physics, biology, and chemistry.

At the Energy Department, the bill would cut biology and climate change research in favor of fusion power, and slashes renewable energy research and efforts to build more energy efficient technologies, arguing that businesses should pursue such efforts instead.

In an odd twist, the bill would also ban federal regulators from using applied fossil fuel research coming out of the Energy Department, such as improving fracking or making more efficient car engines. Science policy expert Michael Lubell of the American Physical Society called this "absolutely bizarre" in a Science magazine report, because it essentially tells the government not to listen to research it has paid for.

Smith justified the bill's cuts by citing an April MIT report that noted 15 "smart investments."

But the lead author of that study, MIT physicist Marc Kastner, says that it wasn't intended to set funding priorities. Instead the report sought to highlight areas where extra funding might help spur innovation — including social science and geoscience.

In the 1960s federal investments in basic research were almost three times higher than today, as a percentage of the federal budget. "It's not enough to move money around for basic research," Kastner told BuzzFeed News. "The U.S. is historically under-invested in science."

Since World War II, basic U.S. research funding has largely come from federal agencies such as NSF, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy, to the tune of $31.6 billion last year.

Scientists themselves peer-review grant proposals for agencies, so that money will go to the best research, regardless of what kind. At the NSF, that means about 35% of funding goes to geoscience, which includes geology and atmospheric science, and social science, which includes studies of economics, poverty, and crime.

But the new bill would undermine the autonomy of this peer-review system with a new rule: No more than 30% of agency funding can go to those disfavored disciplines.

"It is a significant change. It doesn't allow the scientific community to make the determination on where funds are a priority," legislative director Joanne Carney of the American Association for the Advancement of Science told BuzzFeed News.

Attacks on single grants have been standard politics for decades, but singling out geosciences as a whole looks new, retired NSF historian Marc Rothenberg told BuzzFeed News.

Geoscience grants have long been the mainstays of the agency's activities, Rothenberg added. In 1951, NSF's first year, it funded a study of historical climate patterns. The celebrated 1957 International Geophysical Year kicked off research in seismology and Antarctic stations that continue today.

In Monday's op-ed, Smith denied that his committee's bill is "a scheme to undermine climate science." Instead he complained that the Obama Administration has funded climate research at the expense of other research areas with more payoff. "It's time to re-balance the scales," he wrote.

Smith has further angered geophysicists with comments saying that their research is not a "hard" or "core" science, suggesting it deserves less attention for that reason.

"I kind of always thought we were a hard science. We are using physics and chemistry to look into weather, natural disasters, areas that are fundamental to the economy," Chris McEntee of the American Geophysical Union told BuzzFeed News. "There has always been strong bipartisan support for our research, but now we are looking at death by a thousand cuts."