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SMITH AND BUCSHON: Investing in science research to keep America competitive

Challenge begins with funding smartest investments

- - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Federal investments in research and development keep America globally competitive. Without federally funded basic research, many of the technologies Americans rely upon — from iPhones to GPS navigation — simply would not exist. For good reason, the U.S. government spends more on research and development than any other nation. Experts warn, though, that despite these investments, our global competitors are catching up.

A recent report from Battelle, a leading global innovation firm, forecasts a total of $465 billion in U.S. public and private research and development spending, still first in the world. However, the Battelle report also shows rapidly increasing spending by China, which has already enabled it to leapfrog past Japan into second place. If current trends continue, China is projected to overtake the United States by 2022.

There are other troubling trends. The Chinese now have the fastest supercomputer in the world. Europe leads the way in high-energy research. After decades of leadership in space, American astronauts now hitch rides aboard Russian spacecraft to reach the International Space Station. In November, India launched its first mission to Mars. We must regain our footing and make sure taxpayers are funding the best quality research in order to maintain our scientific edge.

To do this, we must make smarter investments. The National Science Foundation spends nearly $7 billion of taxpayers' money every year. Science funded through the foundation has improved Americans' quality of life and advanced our knowledge of the world around us. Eight of the 13 most recent Americans to win the Nobel Prize received National Science Foundation funding at some point in their careers. It's hard to think of a better investment than that. Still, we need to make sure our top priorities are funded and that the money is being used effectively to advance our nation's interests.

On the whole, National Science Foundation research provides a healthy return on investment. An overwhelming majority of foundation grants fund high-quality research worthy of taxpayer investment. A few grants can't help but raise eyebrows, though. We have recently seen too many questionable grants funded with taxpayer money. For instance, how can the foundation justify spending $220,000 in taxpayer dollars to study animal photos in National Geographic, or $50,000 to study lawsuits in Peru during the 1600s? Such questionable research tarnishes the foundation's good name. This is particularly troubling when critical research and development that could save lives or cure diseases is underfunded.

Academic freedom for scientists to explore topics of their choice is important. Nonetheless, federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used on some types of research instead of on higher priorities. For example, why would the foundation fund research about automobile shows in China instead of research that could help improve the quality of life for America's wounded warriors?

In terms of prioritizing research that's in the national interest, the National Science Foundation's grant process can be improved. At a hearing before the House Science Committee last April, the president's chief science adviser agreed that there is "room for improvement" in how the foundation prioritizes research initiatives.

After several months of meeting with National Science Foundation staff and various stakeholders to discuss changes to the agency's grant award process, the agency still has not moved to meet acceptable standards of transparency and accountability to taxpayers for its grant-making decisions. Involvement by the National Science Board, the body that helps to establish policies for the foundation, may yet persuade its leaders to act. but it appears that legislation is the only certain means of achieving and sustaining needed changes at the foundation.

We will soon introduce and mark up legislation in the Science Committee to address these and other issues. The Frontiers in Innovation Research, Science and Technology Act will reauthorize National Science Foundation programs and set priorities for research that will help keep America competitive. Our bill will also require that the foundation staff provide clear justifications for why grants are awarded federal funds.

All government employees and their program managers are accountable to American taxpayers who fund science projects. It's not the government's money; it's the people's money. When only one out of five proposals is approved, the National Science Foundation should explain why grants that receive taxpayer funding are important research with the potential to benefit our national interest.

Americans want their money to be used for high-priority research, like life-saving brain research, a high-performance supercomputer to rival China's, or research that can improve our fundamental understanding of the universe. Enhanced transparency and accountability should not be viewed as a burden to foundation employees. These ideals are the foundation of good government, and will ultimately make the National Science Foundation's grant award process more effective.

Rep. Smith, Texas Republican, is chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Rep. Larry Bucshon, Indiana Republican, is chairman of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology.