With their bizarre and often blatantly incorrect positions on such scientific issues as climate change and evolution, congressional and state Republicans have shown a disregard and even ignorance of how science operates. Now Republicans in the House of Representatives want to impose a requirement on the National Science Foundation that professional scientists are calling “nonsense.”
The NSF awards grants to scientists for basic research projects. Basic research is directed at exploring purely scientific question, without regard for their practical applications. That isn’t because scientists don’t care about the practicalities, but rather, that the applications cannot come until later, once basic questions have been addressed.
The Republicans have put forth a bill dubbed the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2013, which would impose a “national interest” requirement on the NSF, but it goes a step further than the laws governing grant awards that are already in place.
According to the scientific journal Nature, the law would require any experiments funded by the NSF to meet at least one of six criteria: economic competitiveness, health and welfare, scientific literacy, partnerships between academia and industry, promotion of scientific progress and national defense.
The NSF already must meet those criteria, more or less, by requiring researchers applying for grants to describe the “broader impacts” of their research on their applications.
But most scientists fail to take that requirement seriously. Few scientists can predict exactly where their research will lead, causing the to essentially B.S. their way through the “broader impacts” section.
"All scientists know it’s nonsense,” says John Bruer, former co-chair of an NSF task force on broader impacts.
Under the proposed law, the NSF would now be required to publicly document, on its web site, the “national interest” justification for each grant.
Scientists say the requirement runs counter to the NSF’s mission of promoting scientific progress for its own sake.
“Conducting cutting-edge science is clearly in the national interest,” says former NSF program director Scott Collins.