Thoughts on FIRST


Dan Hicks


May 6, 2014

The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act is the current biannual funding authorization bill for the NSF, one of the major science funding agencies in the US. (If you’re already familiar with the bill, feel free to skip down a bit.) The current draft of the bill has been strongly condemned by some prominent representatives of the scientific community: John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, criticized the bill last week, as did the National Science Board, the body that oversees the NSF. Writers at the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post have criticized the draft bill; the latter uses the (empirically flawed) “Republican war on science” framing.
You can read an overview of the bill here, courtesy of the American Institute of Physics, or read the March 10 draft of the bill.

Much of the controversy surrounds two elements of the draft bill. First, it reduces funding for certain areas of scientific research, namely, geosciences (a couple of percentage points) and social science (dramatically). Second, Section 105 and 106 of the draft bill (pages 13-16) lay out new requirements for “accountability and transparency” in the grant award process. Specifically, it requires that each grant award must include a written justification for the award, which must explain

why the research grant or cooperative agreement … is in the national interest, as indicated by the potential to achieve

  1. increased economic competitiveness in the United States;
  2. advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;
  3. development of a STEM workforce and increased public scientific literacy in the United States;
  4. increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States;
  5. support for the national defense of the United States; or
  6. promotion of the progress of science in the United States.

This requirement is similar to the Coburn Amendment, some proposed language in last year’s omnibus spending bill that would have restricted NSF’s political science funding to “national security or economic development.”

(The substance of the post starts here.)

These accountability requirements have been widely criticized as inappropriate “political meddling” in scientific research. However, that charge seem to assume a version of the old idea that science is, and should be, “value free.” Specifically, it seems to assume that the scientific community should be autonomous, free to pursue whatever ends it sees fit without any sort of accountability or positive obligation to the rest of society.

While other versions of the ideal of value free science are controversial, this notion of autonomy is not. I am not aware of any contemporary philosopher of science or science studies scholar who believes that science should be autonomous in this sense. To be sure, many scholars think that it’s extremely important to engage in “pure,” “basic,” or “exploratory” research, that is, research that doesn’t have any immediate practical applications. But we don’t need to think that science must be totally free to do whatever it likes to think that exploratory research is valuable and worth supporting.

So I’m not worried about the proposed accountability requirements because they would violate the autonomy of science. But I’m still very much concerned by the proposal, for two reasons.

First, while it might seem quite broad, the proposal understands “the national interest” in narrow, neoliberal terms. The NSF doesn’t fund much health- or military-related research; these are funded primarily by the NIH and Department of Defense. So, for most proposals, items 2 and 5 are irrelevant. That leaves only two non-economic justifications: “increased public scientific literacy” — which, I expect, will only apply to educational initiatives — and the so-vague-it’s-basically-meaningless “promotion of the progress of science.”

That means, for example, that research on climate change would probably have to be justified in terms of “promotion of the progress of science.”

Second, while the proposal is being defended in terms of “accountability”, it only gives Congress more fine-grained power over the NSF; it does nothing to make the NSF’s funding process more accountable to ordinary citizens. More broadly, it does nothing to make the NSF’s process more democratic.

In his book Science in Democracy, Mark Brown lays out five “elements of democratic representation”: authorization, accountability, participation, deliberation, and resemblance. Brown argues that accountability is important in part because, in democratic politics, “citizens expect one another to justify their political actions and opinions with reasons.” As I read him, this requires a dialogue between — in the case of the NSF — leaders of the funding body and ordinary citizens. It’s not good enough for the NSF to simply announce its reasons; citizens must find these reasons to be reasonable and acceptable. The FIRST act proposal does nothing to promote this.

Furthermore, the proposal does nothing to promote participation or resemblance. It does not provide a means for ordinary citizens to participate in the process of deciding what research to fund. And it does nothing to ensure that NSF peer review committees resemble the citizenry of the US as a whole, either statistically (e.g., requiring that 50% of reviewers are women and 12% are African-American) or in terms of identity (i.e., requiring each committee or the agency as a whole to have representatives for women, African-Americans, and other groups who have historically been excluded from the scientific community).

So the accountability proposal is disingenuous, since it does nothing that will actually improve democratic representation at the NSF. This is especially frustrating since — in terms of accountability, participation, and resemblance — the NSF could and should be significantly more democratic.