The High Quality Research Act is a draft bill from Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Still not officially introduced, it has prompted a fair amount of teeth gnashing and garment rending over what it might mean. The bill would require the Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to certify that the research it funds would: serve the national interests, be of the highest quality, and is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the federal government. The bill would also prompt a study to see how such requirements could be implemented in other federal science agencies.
There’s a lot there to explore, including how the bill fits into recent inquiries about specific research grants made by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the NSF. (One nice place to check on this is the AmericanScience team blog.)
But what this bill has brought to my mind is that it brings the alleged tradeoff between research autonomy and research accountability into stronger relief (at least for those of us who research and analyze these things. The advocates are in combat mode). The goals of the bill – certifying that the research serves the national interests – could be interpreted as being contrary to the notions of blue sky or basic research. If the research must be linked to a national interest, how can it be done without concern for eventual applications?
Yet Congress remains committed to the idea that the federal government should support basic research, in part because it is work that the private sector lacks incentive to do. At the same time it wants to make sure that it’s money is well spent. One definition of being well spent would be to support the national interests, create jobs, etc. But Congress has been operating under the idealism of the linear model for as long as the science advocates have been selling it. As Dan Sarewitz points out in Nature today,
“after more than 60 years of hype about unpredictability and the inevitable benefits of pure science, [Smith] and other conservatives seem to understand and believe it all too deeply.”
While Republicans are more supportive of basic research, it could simply be due to their greater reluctance to support applied research compared to their Congressional colleagues. In other words, conservatives aren’t the only ones who have bought the hype about inevitable benefits of ‘pure’ science. But in asking for a better promise to bring about those benefits, they tug at the science funding Emperor’s clothes.