“National Interest” Science: A Dangerous Contradiction

Scientists, students, consumers, and citizens, beware: last month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the introduction of legislation that would require the National Science Foundation to award grants only for research projects that the agency can certify as being “in the national interest. ” HR 3293 – introduced by Lamar Smith, of Texas, on Feb 10 of this year — — or the “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act” – is a very big deal. Fred Basken sounded the alarm to the research community, on the new proposed “national interest” certification for NSF funding, in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently.

The notion of applying a “national interest” criterion in funding decisions decapitates the scientific process and undermines public trust. Such legislation threatens to weaken a program that is a model for the rest of the world.

The mission of NSF as envisioned in its authorizing legislation is “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” Congressional founders of NSF recognized that the progress of science, pursued independently of outside pressures, is inherently in the national interest.

Why fix what’s not broken? The transparency of the current, independent funding model is a triumph: it is viewed by funding agencies around the world as the gold standard for choosing the best science. All proposals submitted to NSF are reviewed externally by experts from the scientific community. They are asked to score proposals based on two criteria: the potential for transformative advancements in knowledge and the broader impacts of the research. But the new legislation endangers NSF’s well-developed process for scientific review by far more narrowly defining what types of research are in the “national interest.”

One obvious reason this is a bad idea, is that history —> Read More