Yesterday I wrote a piece about a bill proposed by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), in that I focused on the three proposed criteria for receipt of funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federally funded research. I think it is important to first examine proposed legislation as it is written. Opposition to legislation should be based on the legislation itself. But it is also important to examine the motivations behind the bill which is what I will do today.
It seems clear to me that Representative Smith is attempting to politicize science with little to no understanding of science. The biggest indication is a letter Smith sent to Dr Marrett the director of the NSF. In the letter Smith requests the peer reviews for funding five specific projects. On the surface that seems quite reasonable, he is simply asking for more information about how funding decisions are made. The problem is that Representative Smith would not understand the peer review in the least bit. He is completely scientific illiterate; he is not even aware that reproducibility is a key feature of the scientific method. So it is unlikely he selected those studies in order to receive an education in the scientific method. If he wanted even a basic understanding of science he should be going back to school. Instead he seems that he wants to criticize the funding choices made by the NSF.
The second indication is in the bill he proposed; it requires that the director of the NSF to certify that each project meets the funding criteria in the bill. Off hand many may say that isn’t a big deal, so what? But politically it is big. The director will have certified that the funding is in accordance to the law (currently proposed bill) then if Congress disagrees with any funding choice they can attack the director as not upholding her legal obligations as defined by Congress. This would give them an easy route to challenge any scientific funding decision they wish. Now it does not have any legal teeth in that there is no legal penalty written into the bill. But there would be a political penalty; Congress could pressure the director of the NSF to resign should Congress disagree with funding.
The third indication of the political nature of this bill is that it requires the director of the NSF to report back to Congress at minimum twice over the following year. Again on the surface that doesn’t sound bad. The problem is that Representative Smith is creating opportunities to require the director to report to Congress which creates opportunities for him to attack the NSF funding choices he disagrees with.
Thus Representative Smith has requested information about funding choices yet he lacks the basic knowledge necessary to judge those choices. He want the director of the NSF to personally certify every funding choice is in accordance with the criteria he lays out which is done to attach the directors name to the funding and the legal requirements. Then he has set up additional required meeting with the director which would provide opportunities to challenge NSF funding choices. This makes it clear that Representative Lamar Smith did not create this bill in order to improve the state of science in the country, instead he created it so that he can directly pressure the NSF about which projects it chooses to fund.