House Legislation Would Undermine NSF Merit Review Process

A bill (H.R. 3293) just introduced by the chair of the U.S. House Science Committee would undermine the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) longstanding use of merit review for awarding grants. The Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) and several other organizations have expressed their opposition.

The legislation, which is similar to other bills that the AAG has alerted the geography community about, is portrayed by the Science Committee as helping to weed out grants that are unworthy of federal support. The Committee also asserts that nothing in the bill “shall be construed as altering the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications.”

The legislation would require NSF program officers to produce written justification for each project that receives funding that the grant is “worthy of federal funding” and is in the national interest in at least one of the seven following categories:

  • increased economic competitiveness in the United States;
  • advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;
  • development of an American STEM workforce that is globally competitive;
  • increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the United States;
  • increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States;
  • support for the national defense of the United States; or
  • promotion of the progress of science for the United States.

Requiring these justification statements could ultimately force the Foundation’s program officials, including those at the Geography and Spatial Science program, to have to testify publicly in defense of merit review decisions, which are currently handled through a confidential process.

We will monitor this legislation and report on any important developments. View the COSSA statement opposing H.R. 3293. 

—John Wertman


Senate ESEA Reauthorization Bill Includes Geography Grant Program

The Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), the given name of the Senate’s legislation reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – which is currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – includes a program that awards competitive grants “to promote innovative history, civic, and geography instruction, learning strategies, and professional development activities and programs.”

The ECAA, which has been approved by the Senate’s education panel, also specifies geography as a core academic subject for K-12 instruction. The inclusion of the grant funding is a promising development for geography given the discipline was the only core subject in NCLB to not receive any dedicated funding authorizations as part of the 2002 law.

The original version of the ECAA, which was released by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chairman of the education committee, in January, mentioned geography in introducing the grant program, but omitted any mentions of the discipline in several subsections detailing the actual grants. When the Committee reviewed the bill in mid-April, however, geography was included in the implementing language as follows:

The Secretary shall award grants, on a competitive basis, to eligible entities for the purposes of: (1) developing, implementing, evaluating and disseminating for voluntary use, innovative, evidenced-based approaches to civic learning, geography, and American history, which may include hands-on civic engagement activities for teachers and low-income students, that demonstrate innovation, scalability, accountability, and a focus on underserved populations; or (2) other innovative evidence-based approaches to improving the quality of student achievement and teaching of American history, civics, geography, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools.

 In February, AAG Executive Director Douglas Richardson sent a letter to Chairman Alexander asserting the importance of including authorizing programs for geography within the ESEA framework. We have also been working to respond to requests for information from Senate staffers and have had many productive conversations with key folks on Capitol Hill.

The ECAA will still have to be approved by the full Senate – a step that could come in May or later in the summer – and even then it would face a series of negotiations with House leaders before Congress could send a final bill to President Obama.   We will continue to keep you up to date on this critical issue.