House passes bill to establish stricter limits for scientific research grants

The House passed legislation on Wednesday to establish stricter standards for National Science Foundation research grants to be considered “worthy of federal funding.”

Approved largely along party lines on a vote of 236-178, the measure would require the National Science Foundation (NSF) to issue public announcements for all of its grant awards with explanations of the projects’ scientific merits.

Republicans said the bill would help prevent federal grants from being awarded to seemingly frivolous research projects. 

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House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) cited examples like $700,000 for a climate change-themed musical, $487,000 to research the Icelandic textile industry during the Viking era, and $220,000 to study animal photos in National Geographic magazine.

“When the NSF funds such projects as these, there is less money to support worthwhile scientific research that keeps our country on the forefront of innovation,” Smith said. 

In order to qualify as “worthy” of NSF grants under the legislation, research projects must meet standards like having the potential to achieve “advancement of the health and welfare of the American public,” “increased public scientific literacy” and support for the national defense.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), the top Democrat on the Science panel, warned that the measure would threaten research into fields like social science that yield valuable scientific data. 

She offered an example of what she described as “surely one of the silliest-sounding titles for research that could possibly be”: the sex life of the screw worm.

The research was mocked in the Senate floor in the 1970s, but she noted that costs for the cattle industry — and beef consumers — went down after the data offered insight into eliminating the pest. 

“Some of the greatest scientific achievements of the past 60 years were the results of funny-sounding research,” Johnson said.

The White House issued a veto threat against the measure, warning in a statement of administration policy that it would add “bureaucratic burdens” at the NSF “with confusing language that could cast a shadow over the value of basic research.”

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