When Chairman Lamar Smith said that America depends on taxpayer-financed research to fuel the scientific breakthroughs and innovations that have driven our economy for the last several decades, he was absolutely right (“If everything is a priority, nothing is”). That’s what makes the rest of his justification of “America COMPETES”, H.R. 1806, so confusing.

Instead of reinforcing America’s leadership across the sciences, the bill arbitrarily cuts funding for two of the NSF’s divisions – Geosciences and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. Americans rely on NSF’s preeminent scientists and well-respected peer review process to advance the grant proposals that hold the most promise, but H.R. 1806 declares Congress to be the ‘expert’ in what qualifies as scientific innovation, allowing them to pick winners and losers among scientific disciplines.

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Looking at the innovations that have come from research sponsored by those divisions doesn’t make his rationale any clearer.  

While Chairman Smith dismisses the work of the Geosciences Directorate as “redundant climate research,” nothing could be further from the truth. From studies that improve our understanding of the water dynamics involved in the devastating droughts in the West, protect the lives of families across the country by predicting and mitigating the impacts of natural hazards like tornadoes such as those that recently devastated several mid-Western towns, or help us learn about the natural distribution of minerals and energy resources that can help fuel energy independence and breakthroughs, the geosciences are much, much broader than just climate change. Equally important, the climate work that is funded by NSF has, among other things, contributed crucial knowledge about the changing Arctic – an issue that the U.S. Navy has identified as having important national security implications. 

Particularly troubling is the cursory approach of designating certain studies as trivial without considering their possible promise. The very nature of the science funded by the NSF is that it’s at the leading edge of discovery. Could pasture management research in Mongolia help us develop more resilient cold-weather agriculture here in the U.S., for example? 

So how does NSF decide what efforts to fund? The top scientists there keep close track of research and researchers across the nation and around the world, monitoring the efforts most likely to result in the very breakthroughs Chairman Smith seeks. Then NSF’s highly selective (nearly 80% of proposals are rejected), fact-driven process is used to award funding to only the cream of the crop. This process has generated successes like Doppler radar, which allows us to take precautions when severe weather approaches, and its spin-off “Doppler-on-Wheels” a portable radar that has successfully tracked tornadoes across tens of thousands of miles, allowing scientists to lengthen the lead-time of public safety warnings from 13 minutes to nearly an hour.

All of the leading scientific associations oppose the current iteration of America COMPETES. Their rationale is clear--scientific discovery and innovation is crucial to protecting public safety, fueling economic prosperity and protecting national security. Science's value rests in the fact that it is apolitical, allowing policy makers to use unbiased scientific evidence, not personal preference, to inform policy formation. Unfortunately, in its current form, H.R. 1806 would place the future of America's scientific enterprise not in the hands of scientists, but politicians.

McEntee is executive director/CEO of the American Geophysical Union, an organization of over 60,000 Earth and space scientists.