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Rep. Lamar Smith
Assocated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak
Rep. Lamar Smith

Congress scrutinizes science dollars


Should taxpayers have to pay for studies of Mayan architecture and the salt industry? How about research on the environmental consequences of fires set by early humans in New Zealand? Those questions are circulating Capitol Hill as many provisions of the America Competes Act are set to expire at the end of this year.

 The America Competes Act was legislated in 2007 with bipartisan approval to gradually double funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as broadening science education. The act was reauthorized in 2010 with $45.5 billion in appropriations approved between 2011 and 2013, even though Republicans had reservations about its size and duration.

Now Republicans are recommending new measures to eliminate federal funding of irrelevant research. They want stricter guidelines and Congressional oversight of research approval and funding. Currently research only goes through an independent peer-review process. Last spring, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, proposed legislation requiring the NSF to justify each grant. It asked the NSF, which spends more than $7 billion of taxpayer money each year, to certify the work is of the finest quality, groundbreaking, answers questions of utmost importance to society, and is not duplicative of other research projects currently being funded, reported the Huffington Post.

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 Many Democrats and those in the science community oppose any Washington involvement in the grant-making process.  Some have accused Republicans of being against scientific exploration. “Re-prioritizing the government's research spending in favor of improving Americans' quality of life is not anti-science. It is common sense,” Smith countered in USA Today.

Despite the country’s current budget deficit, Democrats insist that a complete reauthorization of the act and a 5 percent yearly increase in funding are needed to keep the United States competitive in the global market.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science and more than 70 other organizations sent a letter to the House committee asking lawmakers to leave funding decisions up to scientific peer review panels, not Congress. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology accused Republicans of trying to “micromanage” the funding portfolios of individual agencies.

But Congressional oversight is necessary, Smith told the Huffington Post: “Congress has a responsibility to review questionable research paid for by hard-working American taxpayers. If academic or other institutions want to conduct such research on these kinds of subjects, they can pay for them with their own private funds. Public funds should be used to benefit the American people.”

Julie Borg
Julie Borg

Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.


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