House Science Chair Lamar Smith Slashing Science Budget

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) has never hidden his anti-science leanings as well as a desire to reshape federal research policy since he became chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology committee 2 years ago. This is the committee with jurisdiction over many laboratories, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Weather Service. The Committee oversees agency budgets of $39 billion, where the primary focus is on research and development.

Lamar Smith is a lawyer not a scientist by the way. Saying he is unpopular among the scientific community is an understatement. He is also unpopular among tech companies thanks to his opposition of Net Neutrality. Smith’s version proposes to cut NSF’s Geosciences Directorate budget by 8% to $1.2 billion , and to slash funding for NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate by nearly 45% to $150 million. Elsewhere, the bill would cut DOE’s energy efficiency and renewable energy R&D by almost 30%, or $496 million.

One of the few scientists in Congress, Democrat Bill Foster, attacked the Competes bill during the mark-up. The physicist, who worked at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois for more than two decades, noted that Smith has requested the full portfolios of more than 70 NSF-funded research grants that he claims are not in the public interest. Smith’s two-year campaign to root out so-called unmeritorious research grants from NSF has ‘sent a significant chill’ across all fields of science, Foster said.

‘I worry that the major purpose here is to hold NSF… accountable for funding decisions that the [Republican] majority disagrees with on ideological terms’ Foster stated. He warned that this could discourage high-risk or curiosity-driven research.

Only two weeks ago Smith decided to spell out his plans for reshaping policy in great detail. Some sections of his new 189-page bill are arguably better than the previous version, but most scientists feel it will seriously damage U.S. research for years to come.

Summary of Lamar Smith’s America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015

  • lamar-smith-is-a-moronIt markedly reduces the NSF’s (National Science Foundation) authority to fund social and geociences;
  • It blocks the government from using DOE research to help write future regulations over industry;
  • It narrow the scope of NSF research by cleverly designating some disciplines that Smith approves of as more important to the nation than others;
  • It limits the NSF’s ability to build any large new scientific facilities comparable to the ones in Europe and Asia thanks to some very controversial accounting practices;
  • It severely curtails climate change research at the Department of Energy (DOE);
  • It tightens the budgets at the DOE applied research program as well as the Advanced Research Projects Agency- Energy (ARPA-E).
  • It still has to go before the Senate for a matching authorization bill so some changes can be expected. However as chairman his ideas greatly shape scientific policy and his influence will be felt throughout the process.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the top-ranked Democrat on the panel.”The original American COMPETES Act was one of the crowning achievements of the science committee. This bill is an America COMPETES bill in name only. It does nothing to further our scientific and innovation enterprise.

The first America COMPETES Act passed back in 2007 and ws renewed in 2010. It enjoyed the rare status of having widespread bipartisan support. Both former President Bush and current President Obama were supporters as was Congress. The current version by Smith has no Democrat supporters at all. The Competes Act overseen by Lamar Smith is a far cry from the original legislation which aimed to put the budgets of NSF, DOE and NIST on a seven- and then ten-year budget-doubling trajectory, respectively.

When scientists need money they often will turn to the NSF for help. The NSF is an independent federal agency with an annual budget of about $7 billion, which it doles out to fund about a quarter of all federally supported science research.

The competition for those funds is fierce and projects and proposals are closely scrutinized. Out of 49,000 proposals submitted in 2013, only a fifth were ultimately funded.

Since Lamar Smith became chair he has especially targeted any programs that dare study Global Climate change because he doesn’t really believe humans have any impact. I am sure the $500,000+ he has received from oil and gas companies has no bearing at all.

A great recent story in Science lays out Smith’s strategy:

Four times this past summer, in a spare room on the top floor of the headquarters of the [NSF] outside of Washington, D.C., two congressional staffers spent hours poring over material relating to 20 research projects that NSF has funded over the past decade. …

The peculiar exercise is part of a long-running and bitter battle that is pitting Smith and many of his panel’s Republican members against [Rep. Eddie Bernice] Johnson [the committee’s ranking Democrat] and the panel’s Democrats, NSF’s leadership, and the academic research community. …

Smith, however, argues he is simply taking seriously Congress’s oversight responsibility. And he promises to stay the course: “Our efforts will continue until NSF agrees to only award grants that are in the national interest,” he wrote in a 2 October e-mail to ScienceInsider.

The letters between Smith and NSF Director France Córdova, an astrophysicist and former president of Purdue University, are a great new entry in the annals of government scientists explaining Science 101 to Republican congressmen.

“NSF’s investment in meritorious research projects enables new and transformative discoveries within and among those fields and disciplines, resulting in the expansion of our scientific knowledge and understanding,” she wrote to him on May 19.

The key issue is that Lamar Smith is asking the NSF to break its confidentiality rules for research that has not yet been accepted for funding. He has plenty of accepted proposals to oversee, it is his insistence on reviewing proposals that have not yet been through peer review that is at issue.

Scientists who were promised confidentiality by the regulations are having their proposals — which, if not accepted, would never see the light of day — discussed and discredited. If this were to become common place, good ideas that were not ready to be funded would be stolen. This also affects the ability of peer reviewers to do their job without bias, and has self-censorship effects as well.

It’s not helpful to completely demonize your political adversaries, and I want very much to hold to the truth that there are a lot of very sensible Republicans out there, but this is the kind of thing that makes the GOP downright scary. You take the various hysterias that are run-of-the-mill politics, like the non-problem of voter fraud, or the whole “ISIS will bring Ebola into the U.S. through Mexico” xenophobia, and all the other ways in which the GOP tries to muck with reality, and none of it amounts to much more than the usual political posturing. But screwing with the scientific process is dangerous.

Smith is a climate skeptic who has taken to the House floor to rant against scientists and journalists “determined to advance the idea of human-made global warming.” Smith acknowledges on his website that the climate is changing; however, he does not mention the overwhelming consensus within the scientific community that humans are responsible.

Over his political career, Smith has received $500,000 from oil and gas. And just last year, he received $10,000 from Koch industries. A bought and paid for lawyer with no understanding of Science chairing the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology…No weird science there at all.

D.C. Political Science 101

 

 

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