The Science Bill With the Bit That’s Very Bad for Science

Skip to story In this Jan. 22, 2015 photo, a zodiac carrying a team of international scientists heads to Chile's station Bernardo O'Higgins, Antarctica. Parts of Antarctica are melting so rapidly it has become “ground zero of global climate change without a doubt,” said Harvard geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica. In this Jan. 22, 2015 photo, a zodiac carrying a team of international scientists heads to Chile's station Bernardo O'Higgins, Antarctica. Parts of Antarctica are melting so rapidly it has become “ground zero of global climate change without a doubt,” said Harvard geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica. Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo

At a federal level, scientific research dollars tend to flow with the political tides. For example, when Congress is dominated by Democrats, money pours into climate change research, and just as quickly sloshes over to fossil fuel research when the Republicans1 take over. But the influence of politics on science extends beyond the motion of money. Bills funding scientific research can include sneaky rules that undermine science as an institution.

Which is exactly what happened April 22 in the House of Representatives’ Committee for Science, Space, and Technology, which spent the day proposing (Democrats) and shooting down (Republicans) amendments to a bill that will play a major role in determining which science gets done over the next year or more (because, money). Not because it’s been passed—the bill still needs to survive voting by the complete 435 member House, then the Senate, and then President Obama before it becomes law—but because it’s an important curtain-raiser for some twisted strategies for dealing with science.

The bill in question is the America COMPETES Act (or, if you’re a fan of tortured acronyms: the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act), which doles out research dollars to several science-based federal agencies. Originally penned in 2007 in an effort to revitalize America’s international standing in STEM fields, the act continues to direct a huge amount of money to the research branches of the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

This reauthorization, penned by the new committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), shifts money to the expected places, away from the social sciences and non-fossil fuel-related geosciences, and into things like engineering, nuclear energy, computer science, and fossil fuel development. If you’d like a play by play of how much money went where, check out this analysis by ScienceInsider. But if you’re interested in the way science will be viewed, treated, and controlled by the committee’s newly elected majority, stick around as we explore two items that could undermine scientists’ ability to govern their own research goals.

The first is found on page one, section one of the bill: A $7.6 billion bomb dropped on the National Science Foundation. That seems great—a $253 million increase from last year (but $126 million shy of what President Obama requested). But a little sobering when you get to some of the line items below, where the bill gives directions about how the NSF will allocate those funds.

What’s the problem with those line items? The NSF is an independent federal research agency, and has traditionally been operated under the premise that scientists-know-best (how to divvy up their congressional chunk of change). Put benignly, these instructions for allocations are hand-holding. Put frankly, it’s legislators telling scientists how to do their job. Despite a protest, it was passed into the final version.

The second rankling bit of manipulation is buried deeper in the bill. Again, it has to do with politicians micromanaging how an agency handles the money it’s been allocated. But in this case it requires that a Department of Energy program—called the Biological and Environmental Sciences programs—overseeing climate change-related research doesn’t duplicate climate change or sustainability research in any other federal agency. Again, at first blush this sounds fine: Let’s streamline research, cut the fat, and make sure every study is targeting new mysteries. But this has the potential to place bureaucratic roadblocks in front of researchers studying climate.

But it’s not just about targeting climate change (even though that’s getting a little tired). This provision sets a bad precedent for all science: Experimental reproducibility is the tenet underlying modern research design. When asked about the issue, Congressman Smith replied in an email, “Rather than duplicating climate science research conducted with programs in the [Biological and Environmental Sciences program], the COMPETES Act invests across the board in basic scientific research across multiple programs.” That’s weird, because the Biological and Environmental Sciences program is the bill’s only target for crimes of duplicability. And it’s doubly perplexing as elsewhere in the bill, Smith (or whichever of his aides penned Section 117(a)(1)) writes, “the gold standard of good science is the ability of a researcher or research lab to reproduce a published method and finding.”

Even if these requirement do pass the House, Senate, and President, Roger Pielke, a science policy expert from the University of Colorado thinks it won’t be a huge barrier for scientists, who have learned to be adaptable to political moods. “To be honest, what has and has not been labeled as climate-related has tended to ebb and flow with the political tides. When Congress was giving a lot of money between Clinton and Bush, a lot of stuff was packaged as climate-related. And a lot of that exact same work shows up under a different name when the political winds change.”

To their credit, other congressmen and women took the bill to task—the ranking Democrat on the committee went so far as to propose swapping in her own version2. But despite attention to the issues outlined above—and a myriad of others—the bill slipped through and will see action sometime soon on the House floor. The Senate hasn’t released a mirror version of the bill, but Smith’s counterpart in the Senate science committee said he shares Smith’s vision. Of course, the President has been championing climate issues of late, and there are plenty of places where the bill could trip his veto alarm. Then again, he might be saving his political capital for other battles on the horizon. With the way politics has been for the past few years, anything is possible.

1Republicans please note: This article is not attacking you; it’s pointing out anti-science behaviors by the people you elected. But being anti-science isn’t new, nor is it specifically Republican. In the 1970s and ’80s, Democratic Senator William Proxmire was a ruthless science executioner. For a spell, his last name became a verb (“proxmired”) meaning that a scientific project had been axed. (Back)

2Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the ranking Democrat on the committee, also tried to sneak in an amendment stating the following:

1. Climate Change is real, and 2. Human activity significantly contributes to climate change.

Smith, shot back, and won the committee’s approval, with this mega burn of an amendment to her amendment:

On page 1 [of Johnson’s amendment], strike all after “real;”.


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