At least one congressman thinks he is better equipped to judge the merit of research than the world’s premier scientists. Representative Lamar Smith (CrunchGov Grade: F), co-author of the infamous Stop Online Piracy Act, wants the director of the National Science Foundation to certify that all research is meeting national priorities, based on the accusation that current scientific research isn’t doing a good enough job. “It’s a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding,” said Presidential science advisor, John Holdren, on Smith’s proposed High Quality Research Act.
According to Science magazine, the act would alter the mission of the NSF to require all research to advance national priorities and be both “groundbreaking” and “not duplicative.” Unfortunately, it’s a well-known fact that important research is often both incremental and done in parallel. Both evolution and Calculus were discovered around the same time. Science is a chaotic process; trying to manage singular “groundbreaking” discovery from the top-down contradicts how science research has been conducted for thousands of years. Maybe Congressman Smith has an understanding that no one else does.
In fairness to the law, not all NSF funding is worthwhile. I supported congress’s decision to cut off Political Science research, based on my four years as a graduate student and seeing millions of dollars being wasted on navel-gazing academic articles. Smith is right to hold the NSF to a higher standard and ensure that tax dollars are being spent well. However, the solution is putting scientists and organizations in charge of the merit review process that have a history of conducting practical, socially beneficial research–not to micromanage the discovery process.
When TechCrunch created a report card for every member of the House of Representatives, it was meant to raise suspicion of legislation proposed by lawmakers with an anti-innovation history. In this, Rep. Smith has not disappointed. [Image Credit: U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology]