H.R. 3293, the Scientific Research in the National Interest Act

H.R. 3293, the Scientific Research in the National Interest Act

Key Points

  • Today, the House will consider H.R. 3293, the so-called “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act” requiring the National Science Foundation to publicly justify every research award granted according to how it meets specific, Republican-proposed criteria for benefiting the national interest.
  • This bill is the latest in a long line of anti-science, anti-innovation bills from House Republicans. It imposes a new and inappropriate layer of political influence on the National Science Foundation’s merit-based review – burdening federal research and scientific discovery with narrow political concerns.  As Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson wrote in the Minority Views:

“Most Members of Congress lack the relevant expertise to fairly evaluate the merits or value of any particular grant…If we do not trust the Nation’s scientific experts to make that judgement on whether a scientific grant is worthy of funding or not, then who are we to trust?”  

  • The NSF receives an estimated 50,000 proposals each year and awards grants to roughly one-fifth, or 11,000. Each proposal is subject to an extensive, rigorous merit review process – considered the gold standard for evaluating proposals in a competitive environment – before a funding decision is made.
  • H.R. 3293 is a dangerous solution in search of a problem. There is no evidence or allegation that the current NSF review process is flawed or in need of this level of political micromanagement. American discovery and innovation must not be limited by bureaucrats’ and politicians’ failure of imagination.  
  • Why are we wasting our time voting on this dangerous bill for a second time when there are so many more pressing matters for us to debate? The exact language in this bill can be found in Section 108 of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act which narrowly passed the House in May 2015 by a vote of 217-205 with 23 Republicans joining all Democrats in voting NO. In fact, notoriously anti-science House GOP Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith has been crusading against the National Science Foundation’s grant review process for three years.
  • The White House is opposed to this bill and has issued a veto threat: Contrary to its stated purpose, H.R. 3293 would add nothing to accountability in Federal funding for scientific research, while needlessly adding to bureaucratic burdens and overhead at the NSF.  And, far from promoting the progress of science in the United States, it would replace the clarity of the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 with confusing language that could cast a shadow over the value of basic research which, by its nature, will have outcomes with contributions to national interests other than the progress of science which cannot be predicted in advance.  If the President were presented with H.R. 3293, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.


Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) on the bill.

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) on her amendment. - failed by recorded vote
Replaces subsection 2(b), "Determination", to ensure the determination is consistent with the mission of the agency and with the existing merit-review criteria.

Letters and Quotes in Opposition of H.R. 3293

Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)
“[H].R. 3293 would create doubt at NSF and in the research community about Congress’s real intent in calling into question the adequacy of NSF’s gold-standard merit-review process, for applied as well as for basic research.  This could easily have a chilling effect on the amount of basic research that scientists propose and that NSF chooses to fund, with detrimental consequences for this Nation’s leadership in science, technology, and innovation alike.”

American Anthropological Association
We are mindful that researchers must be accountable for the federal dollars that support us. We also believe, however, that it is ill-advised for Congress to exert political pressure and impose a “selection of science” based on something other than scientific merit… We call on the Congress not to lower its expectations about what constitutes science in the national interest, but to allow the National Science Foundation to set its directorates’ priorities through its highly regarded merit review process – which is the envy of the world.

American Educational Research Association
This bill would require further written justification, after selection through the merit review process, that grants are worthy of federal funding and in the national interest. This additional requirement suggests that grants selected through the merit review process itself may not be sufficient to determine what is in the “national interest.” Such a requirement is a slippery slope that unfortunately could lead to substituting personal or political preference for scientific merit in the name of national interest.

American Psychological Association, Heather O’Beirne Kelly
“Chairman Smith has again substituted political review for peer review in explicitly attacking individual NSF grants…APA is opposed to any efforts that would discourage researchers from proposing cutting-edge projects and stifle the progress of scientific innovation and discovery.”

Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA)
The U.S. scientific enterprise must remain insulated from political and ideological pressure if we are to encourage the most innovative science. Unfortunately, H.R. 3293 and the ongoing mischaracterization of meritorious research projects illustrate the intent of some to continue inserting political review into the NSF grant-making process…The nature of basic science is to explore fundamental questions that may not have an immediate application, but that contribute to the scaffolding of knowledge that builds and progresses over time. This necessary, unending pursuit of knowledge is what is in the national interest.

Linguistic Society of America
We agree that linguists and other researchers supported by federal dollars must be accountable to taxpayers and that the work supported by NSF should be in the nation’s interest. However, we object to political interference in the determination of what is worthwhile science in the national interest…The language in H.R. 3293 was derived from the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1803), a bill to which LSA has joined the broader scientific community in strong opposition. That bill sought to arbitrarily pick winners and losers among the scientific fields based solely on “political review,” side-stepping NSF’s current practice for prioritizing research investments that relies on technical experts working at NSF, a world-renowned and highly regarded merit review process, and countless scholars housed at universities and laboratories across the country. While H.R. 3293 states, “Nothing in this section shall be construed as altering the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications,” the bill seeks to codify a definition of “national interest” that could be interpreted in ways that would do just that.

American Geophysical Union
In 2014, NSF updated its Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide to require that NSF’s merit review process examine “both the technical aspects of a proposed project and its potential to contribute more broadly to advancing NSF’s mission ‘to promise the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.’” To enhance transparency and accountability, NSF requires award abstracts to include a public justification that articulates the value of the research to the national interest. Given the steps NSF has taken to ensure that the Foundation’s grant funding is awarded to research that furthers the national interest, we’re concerned that H.R. 3293 is merely an additional administrative burden on NSF and scientist recipients with no additional assurances of government accountability. The NSF merit review process has remained the gold standard for scientific peer review and has driven American excellence in science and innovation for decades.

Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences
"The bill requires that the agency make a determination that a research grant or cooperative agreement “is worthy of Federal funding.” The bill does not include any details about how this judgment is to be made, and therefore, may be subject to varying interpretations, including between NSF staff and members of Congress. Drawing Congress and the scientific community into debates over research awards will continue to undermine the public’s faith in the institution."