What the 'FIRST' Science Funding Bill Would Mean for Private Philanthropy

Legislation labeled the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act might seem at first glance to be a good omen for federal science funding. But the research spending bill amounts to a tighter leash on the NSF along with deep cuts, particularly to social and behavioral sciences. It could mean an all-hands-on-deck alert for private science funders.

The House Science Committee, led by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), recently dropped legislation that would reauthorize National Science Foundation programs, but with new accountability rules, requirements for grants, and cuts. It has many critics, including the Association of American Universities, which will oppose the bill, citing spending that does not keep up with inflation, unnecessary cost-cutting measures, and threats to social sciences. 

Heralding the bill, Smith and Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology recently penned for the Washington Times a warning shot to projects they consider unworthy:

On the whole, National Science Foundation research provides a healthy return on investment. An overwhelming majority of foundation grants fund high-quality research worthy of taxpayer investment. A few grants can’t help but raise eyebrows, though.…Such questionable research tarnishes the foundation’s good name. This is particularly troubling when critical research and development that could save lives or cure diseases is underfunded.

This may sound like prudence, but it's an attitude toward science that many researchers and private funders rail against—that research projects must yield a healthy ROI like a business investment. Kavli Foundation and HHMI, for example, emphasize in their grantmaking strategies that game-changing research often does not yield immediate results, falling flat or pivoting after unexpected stumbles, detours and surprise results. This is the kind of high-risk, high-reward research that private funders often try to boost, and a lot more of it would likely be in need of funds with legislation like the FIRST Act.

As more predictable, application-based research retains priority, the more adventurous or abstract projects that "raise eyebrows" will be the first to face the chopping block. Combine that with a potential 40 percent reduction in social, behavioral and economic sciences, and a lot of important research stands to be left out in the cold, with a much bigger gap left for private philanthropy to fill. 

This is not to say that private funders are saints and government agencies nearsighted. In fact, public funding for science has historically been at least partially devoted to this basic research, without potential applications. As that shrinks, the downside to relying more on private funds include being beholden to funders’ pet causes, narrow strategies, and their own elaborate requirements to land funds. 

But if American science and tech are truly going to remain competitive, and legislation proposes more cuts and restrictions as a solution, private philanthropy will likely need to play a much larger role.