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Proposed bill threatens funding for scientific research

By Jodutt Basrawi and Evolet Chiu

Feb. 18, 2016 11:09 p.m.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation Feb. 10 that would restrict the National Science Foundation to award grants only to research projects that aim to improve the American economy, strengthen national defense or otherwise further national interest.

Rep. Lamar Smith proposed the Scientific Research in the National Interest Act, or HR 3293, seven months ago to encourage scientific contributions that would benefit the public rather than smaller cohorts, according to the House Democrats website.

Funding from the NSF accounts for 13.5 percent of all grants awarded annually to UCLA, said Harveen Kukreja, manager of UCLA’s award intake team at the Office of Contract and Grant Administration.

The NSF is an independent federal agency that aims to promote scientific progress. It funds 24 percent of all federally supported research conducted at colleges and universities across the nation. The NSF receives more than $7 billion per year from taxpayer support, officials said.

Kukreja added UCLA received $84 million from NSF for the 2015-2016 school year. In 2014, NSF gave $72.8 million to the university.

The National Institutes of Health, an organization dedicated to medical research, is the biggest supporter of UCLA research, contributing 62.9 percent of its total annual funding, Kukreja said.

Several UCLA professors said they think HR 3293 could affect funding for research in physical and life sciences if passed.

Chris Harrington, associate director of Federal Governmental Relations at the University of California, Washington Center, said President Barack Obama’s administration’s senior advisers opposed the legislation in a statement issued Feb. 9, saying they think the NSF’s current review process has funded effective scientific research.

The advisers added they recommend Obama veto the bill because they think it would decrease accountability of federal funding and increase bureaucratic work for the department.

Gary Falle, associate vice president of Federal Government Relations in UC Office of the President, said he thinks it will be hard to predict the effect of the bill on the UC system.

“UCOP is in support of the scientific merit review that NSF currently has,” Falle said. “However, it’s hard to say what the senate will do and what is considered national interest.”

Republicans supported the legislation with a party-line vote of 236 to 178, but the majority of Democrats voted against it. Democratic representatives believe the bill represents a House Republicans’ attempt to control the NSF’s merit-based review process, according to the House Democrat website.

Martin Hudson, a geotechnical engineering lecturer, said he thinks research in some academic fields, such as earthquake engineering, are always of national interest. He added he thinks the NSF legislation will not affect funding for professors in those fields.

“A local earthquake problem is a national earthquake problem,” Hudson said. “Research on earthquakes in California, for example, could be applied to earthquake problems in Illinois and Kansas.”

Aradhna E. Tripati, an associate professor of earth, planetary and space sciences, said she thinks the legislation will slow down project efforts because the bill has been an important funding source for many ambitious research projects. She added she thinks placing national interests on research endeavors is not conducive to scientific values, which are better fostered independently.

“The funding success rate is between 1 and 5 percent, and many deserving projects would end up going unfunded,” Tripati said. “This would have repercussions that could affect us decades from now.”

Contributing reports by April Hoang, Bruin contributor.

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Jodutt Basrawi
Evolet Chiu | Science & Health editor
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