Is Any Science Safe?

Science  03 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6132, pp. 525
DOI: 10.1126/science.1239180

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This month, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) will apply two criteria in its review of research proposals: intellectual merit and impact. One discipline, however, will have to meet a further test. In March, at the urging of U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), Congress halted funding for political science—“except for” research that the agency's director certifies as “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” This extra test might not stop with political science. Representative Bill Posey (R-FL), in an NSF oversight hearing on 17 April, asked John Holdren, President Obama's science adviser, why Coburn's two criteria were not “a good and proper filter” to apply to all NSF grants, eliciting this response: “… it's a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding.”* The United States has benefitted enormously from a government/science partnership carefully designed by Congress over many decades. There have been bumps along the way; it is challenging to reconcile scientific autonomy with Congress's responsibility for public funds. Coburn's “except for” clause is potentially a very large bump.