Inside GOP science, part 2: the brawl over National Science Foundation grants

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), right, seen here with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), has been challenging NSF grant decisions.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

In part 2 of our interview with Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.), we turn to the controversy over another agency under his jurisdiction as chairman of the House Appropriation Committee’s subcommittee on commerce, justice, and science: the National Science Foundation, which distributes about $7 billion annually in grants--about one-fourth of all federal research grants to academic and research institutions.

The foundation has been under attack from conservatives for years, especially for its grantmaking in social sciences. Leading the attack recently is Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. We reported on Smith’s campaign against the foundation here and here.

As was detailed by Science magazine, Smith’s method involves picking out funded projects that can be caricatured as frivolous, even though the actual research is serious and sound. The spreadsheet of projects Smith’s staff cherry-picked last year is here. He has also demanded documents related to specific grants, which foundation defenders say could only have a chilling effect on the foundation’s objectivity.


Smith’s campaign raised the hackles of (among others) the Assn. of American Universities, which called it a “pressure” campaign to discourage research that might yield findings Smith and his cadre might find politically discomfiting. The campaign, the association wrote, is “having a destructive effect on NSF and on the merit review process that is designed to fund the best research and to remove those decisions from the political process.”

The “Golden Fleece” award issued annually by former Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), and referenced in the conversation below, is often regarded as the granddaddy of philistine attacks on scientific research. Proxmire caricatured legitimate research so he could attack it as wasteful spending.

Along those lines, Culberson’s mention of a study on alcoholism among prostitutes in Thailand references a cherished GOP talking point. The peer-reviewed study in question was funded by the National Institutes of Health, not the National Science Foundation, as a cooperative project with a Thai university. Its principal topic was HIV infection, not alcoholism, and its goal was to help develop methods for avoiding the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases among high-risk populations. The study grant was targeted for defunding by a 2010 measure introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista). The Issa measure never became law.

As we explained Tuesday, our phone interview with Rep. Culberson took place last month. The transcript has been lightly edited, chiefly for clarity and to remove extraneous and repetitive material. Part 1, covering NASA, can be found here. Part 3, to appear Thursday, will address climate change.

Michael Hiltzik: Congressman Culberson, as part of your portfolio you have the National Science Foundation and NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], among other agencies. Obviously there’s been a lot of discussion over the last year or so about what NSF would call political interference, such as Chairman Smith’s initiative to look more closely at some of the grants.

What’s your overall feeling about that? And how does that correspond to your feelings about NASA needing more independence?


John Culberson: On the National Science Foundation, I want to make sure they’re following the science, that they continue to maintain their peer-review grant process. the peer-review grant process is vital to NSF’s success. As with NASA, NSF has to narrow its focus, we shouldn’t spread them too thin. Let them stay focused on basic science, on fundamental questions of the universe, the fundamental questions of the nature of matter at the atomic level, and at the other end of the spectrum, what is dark matter, what is dark energy, the origin of the universe and the origins of life.

If the NSF will stay focused on the fundamentals and avoid as best they can getting drawn off into esoteric and controversial social science questions, they would help themselves tremendously and avoid unnecessary controversy.

I hope that NSF will do a better job of self-policing. Again, as with NASA, I want to try to avoid political interference in the direction NSF takes, and as with NASA, we should let the best scientific minds be the ones that give direction and guidance as to the research and the work that NSF is doing. I wish there were decadal survey process for the National Science Foundation as there is for these different fields of space exploration at NASA.

We don’t have a long-range blueprint put together by the best minds of the scientific community on the direction that NSF should take over the next decade. I am a big believer, as you can tell, in the decadal survey process [by the National Research Council]. I’m tremendously impressed by their objectivity, with the way they hash it out among themselves, and they come up with a prioritized list of missions or goals, and it’s a 10-year plan and I think when you’re dealing with these--whether it be a tremendously expensive and complicated space program or the immensely important and expensive research that’s done by the National Science Foundation, it’s in my mind better to have a 10-year plan put together by the best minds in the scientific community as sort of the blueprint that Congress would fund and support.

MH: I’m wondering if the goals or responsibilities of the NSF are very different from that of NASA. With NASA, when you talk about a decadal program, you’re talking about goals that are easily identifiable--maybe the technology needs to be developed, but we’re really talking about applied science, whereas the NSF would say, and I think this might be supported by history, it’s there for basic science. It doesn’t know where it’s going to go and it doesn’t know where it’s going to be. Setting goals with any specificity might not be a good idea for an agency that’s really supposed to be enabling scientists to start from scratch. So how do you reconcile those?

JC: For example, and this may be more directly under the National Institutes of Health, we should have a 10-year plan in place to identify, based on the best recommendations of the scientific community who would know what’s achievable, in 10 years I would hope that we would know the purpose of most of the genes in the human genome. I think over 99.5% of the human genome we’re not really sure what they do, and why aren’t we identifying 10-year goals like that?


What, for example, should the next generation of quantum supercomputers look like? We’re probably going to need to move into quantum computing. Why don’t we have a 10-year plan to make sure that in 10 years the United States continues to lead the world in the design and construction of the fastest and best supercomputers on earth?

MH: I suspect the NSF people would say that may be part of their portfolio, but they’re also responsible for having scientists go and look and see--there might be some technology that no one’s thought about. And you can’t say, just go find it.

JC: I would like to see us have a 10-year plan for NSF, for example--what’s the ideal mix of peer-reviewed grants, what types of universities, how far should our reach be, and how deep and how broad should our award of peer-reviewed scientific grant money be? And what areas? We typically get one-year budget recommendations. NSF, frankly, should also be an agency that submits their requests directly to Congress and bypasses OMB [the White House Office of Management and Budget]. That’s what I’m talking about.

I understand what you’re saying here. Exactly right: there are fundamental questions you start down. some are going to be rabbit trails that are going to be dead ends, others are going to absolutely lead to earth-shaking discoveries. You don’t really know. So it’s difficult. I’m thinking more in terms of there are some areas [where] you can identify a specific goal, and others in which you just want to say, for example, what’s the strategy [by which] the National Science Foundation is handing out its peer-reviewed grant money? How should it be spent over the next five years or 10 years? What are your long-range goals for the agency and the manner in which you’re going to develop relationships with the universities, research centers? There’s not in my mind enough long-range planning, I guess is what I’m getting at.

MH: Is there anything in particular that gives you concern that the peer review process at NSF has not been working or is flawed in some way? Because this seems to be the issue that’s been raised between Congressman Smith and the administrators at NSF. Of course you’re inevitably going to get some tension when outside, non-peer reviewers start picking apart particular grants. Is there a reason to think the NSF has not been functioning properly?

JC: I don’t think that’s what Chairman Smith’s point is. I share Chairman Smith’s concern that NSF should avoid at all costs damaging its precious credibility in the minds of taxpayers by funding esoteric and controversial social science research projects like alcoholism among prostitutes in Thailand, for example.


I don’t think anyone’s necessarily questioning the validity of the peer-review process itself, other than that a research project like that, funded with scarce hard-earned tax dollars, damages the credibility of NSF in the minds of taxpayers and makes it more difficult for those of us that want to help NSF with the funding they need to do their job.

We just don’t want to see NSF’s good name damaged by pursuing esoteric and controversial research projects that the public will look at and think, “Why in the world are my tax dollars going to support something like that?” It damages the tremendously important research work that NSF is doing in so many other areas.

I think any time they wade off into--I would just encourage NSF and I’ve done so privately and will continue to do so publicly through every medium I can to focus on the basic science on the pure sciences and try to avoid getting off too deep into controversial social science issues that are simply going to draw unnecessary controversy and doubt about NSF’s use of our hard-earned tax dollars. that’s the problem. It just damages NSF’s credibility and sterling reputation when they fund projects that I think deviate from their core mission of basic scientific research on the fundamental questions of the universe.

MH: Is there something in NSF’s charter that says they should be dealing only with the hard sciences and not the social sciences?

JC: I didn’t say “only.” I just think they need to be very cautious and very discerning and careful when they’re deciding which research grant requests to fund, they need to be conscious in the back of their mind, make sure they know these are tax dollars they’re spending that are precious and scarce and were earned by Americans working their tail off and use them wisely and try to avoid funding research projects that are going to generate headlines that are going to damage NSF’s credibility.

MH: The NSF’s concern, and I think other scientists have expressed this, is that the problem isn’t that they’re out there funding projects that are controversial or lend themselves to controversy, but that controversy is being ginned up essentially for political reasons by caricaturing projects that actually are very sound and sensible and will lead to something--but can be painted on Twitter as comical or stupid.


I haven’t looked at the alcoholism among prostitutes in Thailand issue, which I know has been brought up before, but there have been others where on the face of it--and this goes back to William Proxmire--where you can take a line out of an abstract or you can reduce it to a sentence and you can make almost anything look silly. The NSF is going to say, this went through our peer review process and there’s a reason to do it and it’s being portrayed in a misleading way. Do you have concerns that some of that is going on?

JC: As NSF reviews these grant proposals, a question they should ask on each one is how will the principal purpose of this research project look either in a headline on the New York Times or in a tweet?

MH: You’re saying they should do that?

JC: They need to think about it because they’re spending very precious, very scarce hard-earned tax dollars and they have a sterling reputation to preserve. I’m one of their biggest fans and strongest defenders, and I will do everything in my power to avoid any political interference in the way they review and reward research proposals through their peer review grant process. But in order for them to continue to enjoy the reputation they’ve always earned among taxpayers, they just need to be conscious of this and avoid as best they can controversial or esoteric social science questions that don’t have a direct bearing on answering some of the fundamental questions about the origins of the universe or science or math or physics that they historically always have been focused on.

Social science is peripheral in my mind. The social sciences and some of the research projects that have caused controversy in the past have typically been in areas that are peripheral to NSF’s core mission of pure scientific research.

And again its just words of advice and encouragement to them. I’ll always work hard to protect them and make sure that they’re fully funded and they’re given as much freedom as humanly possible to do what they do best, based on the science and the recommendation of the best minds in the scientific community. But in order for them to protect their reputation, it will help me and Lamar Smith protect them and support them if they’ll do as much as they can on their end to protect themselves by avoiding funding projects that could generate headlines or damage their credibility.

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