NSF Authorization on the Floor Today

The National Science Foundation Authorization Act of 2007 (H.R. 1867), which we’ve discussed previously, will be on the House floor today. The bill authorizes appropriations at the agency (which is not the same as actually funding the agency — only the appropriations committee can do that — but is still a necessary (and symbolic) step in getting funding for the agency) at the levels called for in the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative and the Democratic Innovation Agenda — a trajectory that would double the agency’s budget over the next seven years.
It’s likely the bill will pass today without much difficulty. There are, however, a whole slate of amendments proposed, some of which are pretty awful (though not likely to pass). For example, there are amendments from Reps. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) and John Campbell (R-CA) that would specifically prohibit funding of nine already-funded grants in NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economics directorate, based apparently on their “silly” titles. Here are the grants targeted:

  • the reproductive aging and symptom experience at midlife among Bangladeshi Immigrants, Sedentees, and White London Neighbors;
  • the diet and social stratification in ancient Puerto Rico;
  • archives of Andean Knotted-String Records;
  • the accuracy in the cross-cultural understanding of others’ emotions;
  • bison hunting on the late prehistoric Great Plains;
  • team versus individual play;
  • sexual politics of waste in Dakar, Senegal;
  • social relationships and reproductive strategies of Phayre’s Leaf Monkeys; and
  • cognitive model of superstitious belief.
  • There are a number of reasons amendments like this are a bad idea. The primary one is that the NSF peer-review system, while arguably not perfect (well, far from perfect), is still likely a much more reliable way of choosing meritorious research than Congressional intervention. It’s also pretty reasonable to assert that titles are not the best way to judge the worthiness of research.
    Additionally, there’s an interesting (and bad) amendment proposed by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) that would tie any increases in the NSF budget to proportional increases at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The amendment, Weldon says in a press release, would “ensure that NASA’s budget is not raided to fund the NSF increase.” As someone who has been doing science policy work for the better part of a decade, it amuses a little to think of NASA in the role of victim to NSF, as I’ve watched innumerable times in the past as NASA increases swallowed up all the available funding room in VA/HUD appropriations bills that shortchanged NSF and NIST. But the Weldon amendment is an innovative approach to “protecting” NASA, by trying to link the two agencies’ budgets. It might, however, set an awkward precedent. One could imagine linking the National Institutes of Health and NASA, or NIH and NSF, or NSF and DOE, or NSF and NIST and NIH…the number of permutations just among the science agencies are enormous. But why stop there? We could link NSF and the Veterans Administration. The Department of Labor to NIH. Or NASA and the Department of Transportation (wait, that could almost make sense). In any case, the idea of linking two agencies with disparate missions together is probably not sound policy, and I would argue that the best way to “protect” NASA funding (which isn’t actually at risk because of the NSF Authorization) is to ensure NASA is pursuing a compelling mission for the Nation.
    You can find a complete list of amendments being considered today on THOMAS. We’ll try to keep score here throughout the day.
    One other piece of news about the bill is that it appears H.R. 1867 will get conferenced with the Senate as part of the S. 761 (the “America COMPETES Act“) conference. This is actually very good news as it means the NSF Authorization has a real chance of enactment. While the bill is expected to pass the House without much difficulty, it wasn’t clear that the Senate had much of an interest in moving it’s own version of the bill, simply because they’d already passed an NSF authorization as part of S. 761. Now it appears that there’s an inclination to take the NSF-specific portions of that bill out and use them as a conference vehicle for H.R. 1867. We’ll have more as we learn more, but in short, this means that there’s a potential path to enactment that is relatively free of big bumps….
    Update: (5/3/07 12:20 am) — The bill passed overwhelmingly (399-17). The Garrett and Campbell amendments both failed, and the Weldon amendment was subject to a point of order that the NASA provisions weren’t germane to the bill — a point of order that was sustained. So great news all around!