Proposed bill that would regulate NSF research funding faces backlash

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2013-05-10

Over the past several months, Congress has gotten rather upset by some of the research funded by arms of the federal government, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. That displeasure eventually prompted the House Science Committee's chair, Lamar Smith (R-TX), to float a bill that would require the head of the NSF to certify that every single grant its organization funded was either in the national interest or groundbreaking.

As we pointed out, the mission of the NSF is to fund research in fundamental questions in science (typically called "basic" research). As such, the research isn't intended to have immediate commercial or military applications; those would come decades down the line, if ever. And it's generally considered impossible to predict which areas of research will eventually be viewed as groundbreaking at some point in the future.

Now, scientists who have served in the NSF are saying the same things. In a letter to Smith obtained by Science magazine, they point out that the draft bill "frankly requires the Director [of the NSF] to accurately predict the future." And they point to a technology that's currently having a huge commercial impact—the laser—that grew out of basic research using microwaves. In fact, in their view, "many basic research projects in every field supported by the NSF would likely not qualify for certification under this bill."

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