House Science Committee Reforms or Handcuffs the NSF? Your Perception Is Your Reality

The tmblr dress that launched a thousand arguments. Has the House Science Committee sewn NSF into a corner? Credit: tumblr/swiked

The tmblr dress that launched a thousand arguments. Has the House Science Committee sewn NSF into a corner? Credit: tumblr/swiked

Earlier this year, the internet went crazy over the color of a dress posted on the web. Was the dress white and gold or blue and black? It looked white and gold to me but the real color of the dress was said to be blue and black.


A legislative version of The Dress took place this week when the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology met to amend and approve (it’s called a “markup” on the Hill because the bill is actually marked up as last minute changes are made by the committee) the “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015.” America COMPETES is legislation that makes programmatic changes to the operations of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Federal Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and several divisions of the Department of Energy.


The Republican majority on the committee, which wrote the bill, had nothing but praise for the bill and its impact on American science. In press releases and during the markup, committee leadership referred to the bill as “pro-science” and said that it would “reestablish the federal government’s primary role to fund basic research.”


The Democrats on the committee had trouble finding anything good to say about the bill. They called it a “combination of two bad bills” and said that, unlike previous efforts, the contents of the bill were not shared with Democrats on the committee until the last minute. In one of her most stinging comments, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the senior Democrat on the committee, said that the bill “is preoccupied with questioning the motives of the National Science Foundation and the integrity of the scientists it funds.”


The bill is the most recent product of a committee that has focused a great deal of attention in the last few years on the way the NSF awards grants. Over the last year, science committee staff have visited NSF headquarters to review peer reviewer notes on awarded grants and have selected over 70 grants for close scrutiny.


If the House bill were to become law, it would establish a new awards process at the NSF. Each successful NSF grant would have to be consistent with the NSF mission, be worthy of federal funding, and have the potential to achieve:

  • Increased economic competitiveness in the U.S.;
  • Advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;
  • Development of a globally competitive American STEM workforce;
  • Increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the U.S.;
  • Increased partnerships between academia and industry;
  • Support for the national defense of the U.S.; or
  • Promotion of the progress of science in the U.S.


The House bill also requires that the NSF ensure that funded researchers are not receiving funding from any other federal agency. Grantees would have to submit a list of all federal research funding they have ever received or are requesting now. In addition, researchers would have to validate that any unpublished data submitted with the grant application did not include knowingly misrepresented data. Finally, NSF-funded investigators would have to be provided with sufficient resources to conduct the research described in the grant.

About the Author:

Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: