By David Yonkman
House Republicans are questioning whether projects such as studying China's dairy industry and analyzing pictures published in National Geographic are the best use of taxpayer dollars for science research.
House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas recently circulated a letter asking whether grants issued by the National Science Foundation -- which also includes studies on the history of scientific conservation in the Amazon and mapping global social interactions -- can survive additional scrutiny.
"The NSF has great potential to help American science flourish and thus contribute to our economy and the well-being of our country," Smith said in a recent statement. "Our focus should be on how the federal government, including the NSF, can maximize the returns from taxpayer-funded research."
A draft bill by Smith would require the foundation's grants to "advance the national health, prosperity or welfare" or "secure the national defense," according to the Los Angeles Times.
The current National Science Foundation criteria are broader and allow the foundation to weigh the "intellectual merit" and "broader impacts" of the proposed research.
National Science Board Chairman Dan Arvizu said during a recent hearing that Smith's focus on national interest may "compromise the integrity of the process," the Los Angeles Times reported.
Smith later defended his bill, saying that it "maintains the current peer review process and improves on it by adding a layer of accountability. The intent of the draft legislation is to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent on the highest-quality research possible."
"Our charge is to ensure the American taxpayer is getting value for their hard-earned dollars that we spend on research through the NSF," Republican Rep. Larry Bucshon of Indiana said in a recent statement, supporting Smith's bill.
"Imagine the high-paying jobs that will result when today's basic scientific discoveries turn into tomorrow's marketable technologies. But for American science to succeed, we must make sure that the NSF remains focused on its scientific goals and missions," added Bucshon, chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Research.
The debate comes as the NSF is seeking an 8.4 percent increase to $7.63 billion in its fiscal 2014 budget request.