Frank Lautenberg and the National Science Foundation

by John Sides on June 9, 2013 · 4 comments

in National Science Foundation,Obituary

This is a guest post by Jeanne Zaino, who is Professor of Political Science & International Studies at Iona College.

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Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) will likely be remembered for the work he did on a wide range of policy issues from transportation and public health to affordable housing, the environment, and refugees. What is sometimes not recognized is that as a long-standing member of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Sen. Lautenberg also fought to retain the National Science Foundations (NSF’s) support for all the sciences.
At a time when public funding for the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences are under attack, just a few months after the Senate voted to restrict funding for political science research and weeks after a House Subcommittee Chair requested the NSF turn over information about reviewers comments, it is important that we remember Sen. Lautenberg for his work in this area.

One notable example occurred in May 2006. At that time the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee was considering the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006 (S.2802). The bill included a provision directing the NSF to prioritize grants that “make contributions in physical and natural sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, and other research that underpins these areas.” Another member of the Committee, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), was upset by the last phrase because she felt it left too much room for the agency to support projects that don’t enhance America’s competitiveness, most notably the SBE sciences. As a result she offered an amendment designed to close this loophole and in doing so attempted to exclude funding for both the natural and social sciences.

This wasn’t the first time Hutchison had expressed dismay regarding the NSF’s funding of the SBE sciences. During an address at the Lasker Medical Research Awards Luncheon a few months earlier she questioned the wisdom of the NSF’s spending on social science research. She later cited specific grants she found questionable and asked whether this type of research could be funded elsewhere? She also made it clear that while she supported doubling the NSF’s budget, she did not believe any of those funds should go towards the social sciences.

Unlike Hutchison, Sen. Lautenberg not only implicitly understood, but spoke out in favor of the need to support the NSF’s commitment to all sciences. Consequently, when Hutchison offered an amendment excluding funding for the social and natural sciences he took it upon himself to reach across the aisle and work with her to fashion a bipartisan solution. The compromise they came up with included language which would allow the NSF to continue to fund all scientific research. This is reflected in the language included in sub-section (d) of SEC. 307 ‘Meeting Critical National Science Needs’ which reads in part: “[n]othing in this section shall be construed to restrict or bias the grant selection process against funding other areas of research deemed by the Foundation to be consistent with its mandate, nor to change the core mission of the Foundation.”

As she later made clear, Hutchison was not particularly happy with the compromise and continued to believe that the NSF shouldn’t support most SBE projects. Nevertheless, as a result of Lautenberg’s efforts, she joined with the rest of the committee in voting the bill out unanimously.

Hutchison’s arguments against SBE funding are eerily reminiscent of those being made today by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), and others. The difference is, unlike Hutchison, when Coburn proposed an amendment in March limiting funding for political research he was successful. And while NSF Acting Director Marrett rebuffed Smith’s recent request for reviewer comments and other information, we still don’t know what the ultimate outcome of that situation will be.

So even though Sen. Lautenberg is not usually remembered for his efforts to protect NSF funding for all sciences, now is a particularly good time to recall this important part of his legacy.

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