Push for science in the ‘national interest’ puts some on edge

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ASHINGTON — A musical called “The Great Immensity” made its New York premiere in 2014, the product of nearly $700,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation. Aimed at increasing awareness of the widespread impacts of climate change, the musical featured one song that explained the emergence of the global economy and another on the extinction of the passenger pigeon. It was widely panned.

The production, however, made a brief comeback earlier this year — not on stage, but in an outline of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s authorization and oversight plan. According to the committee, grant awards like the ones used to fund the musical necessitated a crackdown: Lawmakers must ensure that all grants serve “the national interest.”

That idea was not a new one — it was codified in the law that created the NSF, which funds $7.5 billion annually in research. But the inclusion of the clause has made many scientists fearful that the agency’s work could be politicized or be micromanaged.

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Just months earlier, the chairman of the committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), succeeded in inserting a provision into a broader law on US innovation that called for a review of NSF spending based on seven criteria. Those criteria included evidence that research would increase “the economic competitiveness of the United States” and support the country’s “national defense.”

The scrutiny of NSF’s spending has set off a broader debate on Capitol Hill: Should all the research the agency funds have immediate, tangible benefits? And must scientists be able to explain their work’s national impact?

The Republican-controlled committee says yes on both counts, but many Democrats and science advocates see the language as condescension-laden red tape.

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