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Fund science for a new millennium in America: Lamar Smith

Feb 22, 2017
In The News

In President Trump’s inaugural address, many pundits overlooked a key passage. “We stand at the birth of a new millennium,” he declared, “ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.”

The passage spoke to a commitment I share with our new president: ensuring that America thrives and prospers again through innovation, ingenuity and the creation of new industries and more jobs.

For nearly 70 years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has served as the bedrock of taxpayer-funded basic science. NSF invests about $7 billion of public funds each year on research projects and related activities. Since its creation in 1950, NSF has served a mission that helps make the United States a world leader in science and innovation.

But that global leadership is under threat. Despite the U.S. government spending more on research and development than any other country, American pre-eminence in several fields is slipping. Other countries are focusing investments on new technologies, advanced scientific and manufacturing facilities, and harnessing their workforces to go into STEM fields. For example, last year China launched the fastest supercomputer in the world, five times faster than any supercomputer in the United States.

Business as usual is not the answer. NSF must be as nimble and innovative as the speed of technology, and as open and transparent as information in the digital age. NSF Director France Cordova has publicly committed NSF to accountability and transparency and restoring its original mission to support science in the national interest. These policies were made permanent and expanded by the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA), which was enacted in January. This bipartisan legislation will bolster our nation’s leadership in science and investment in future economic growth.

But there is more work to be done. First, NSF must focus research funding on areas most likely to strengthen the economy, national security and other national priorities. NSF has funded too many projects that are at best marginal or at worst frivolous and wasteful. These low-risk, low-priority projects detract from investments into groundbreaking research that crosses biology, physics, computer science and engineering.

When NSF is only able to fund one out of every five proposals submitted by scientists, why did it award $225,000 to study animal photos in National Geographic or $920,000 to study textile-making in Iceland during the Viking era? Why did studying tourism in northern Norway warrant $275,000 of limited federal funds?

These grants and hundreds like them might be worthwhile projects, but how are they in the national interest and how can they justify taxpayer dollars? The federal government should not fund this type of research at the expense of other potentially ground-breaking science.

Second, NSF must help increase public trust in science. A Pew Research Center study last year showed a decline in the public’s trust of scientists and scientific findings. And Nature magazine found in a survey of researchers that more than 70% have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s published results, which is considered essential for legitimate scientific inquiry.

Publication of flawed basic research can have devastating economic and human impacts. A recent study found that $28 billion a year is spent on research in the field of biology alone that can’t be reproduced, while retractions of published studies have risen 25% in the last five years. 

Reproducibility is the gold standard of science, and NSF should be leading the charge towards finding solutions to improving reproducibility and replication. The AICA directed a study to be conducted by the National Academies of Science, which I hope will help restore the trust of the American people in our science institutions.

Some have declared that raising these questions or taking a critical look at how NSF has done business for nearly 70 years is somehow “anti-science.” It’s not. It is the nature of science to ask questions, seek new solutions, and never stop experimenting. We should not ask anything less of our federal science agencies as we join together, in the words of President Trump, “in a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise for all of our people.”

Congressman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

115th Congress