Researchers Question NSF's Changes to Merit Review Criteria

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Natalie Villacorta
2011-07-27 11:52
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Debate is heating up over proposed changes to the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) merit review process' "broader impact" criterion, which requires that research have benefits to society beyond merely advancing scientific knowlege. At a congressional hearing yesterday, a university leader added to concerns from the scientific community that the draft changes proposed in June by the National Science Board (NSB) confuse further, rather than clarify, the NSF's so-called Criterion Two. The board will review the proposal later this week.

Congress asked NSF to revisit Criterion Two in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act that was enacted in January.

At present, NSF asks researchers in an open-ended way how their research will benefit society in the form of education and outreach, enhanced research infrastructure, and/or broadened participation of underrepresented groups. But the new criterion lists nine "national goals" that projects should strive to advance "collectively," including increasing national security and economic competitiveness. Scientists were invited to comment on the draft by 14 July, and this Thursday NSB's Task Force on Merit Review will discuss the proposed revisions. Some have complained that the national goals seem arbitrary and that review panels would be forced to prioritize these goals since they will be presented with proposals that are equally meritorious, but advancing different goals.

The broader impact criteria came up yesterday at a hearing that the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held on the merit review process in order to ensure that federal resources are being invested in the best science. Keith Yamamoto, vice chancellor for research at the University of California, San Francisco, expressed his concerns. In his testimony, Yamamoto emphasized the importance of using the merit review committees to judge proposals solely on their scientific merit.

Not only is it inappropriate for reviewers to be asked to "step outside of their areas of expertise" and to "make guesses" as to whether proposals are meeting national goals, Yamamoto told the panel, but it is impossible to make such assessments at the level of individual projects. Instead, such national goals should be addressed by funding mechanisms and mission-driven agencies that support research in areas such as health, environment, or national security, rather than the NSF.

Yamamoto has always been opposed to NSF's broader impacts criterion, but he says that the proposed changes will only make things worse by "threaten[ing] the foundation of really fundamental investigation" whose broader impact cannot be determined from the outset. "I'm very concerned about the proposed changes," Yamamoto told ScienceInsider after the hearing.

But two other witnesses, Jorge José, vice president of research at Indiana University and Nancy Jackson, president of American Chemical Society, were more supportive of the broader impacts criterion. Both agreed that other criteria besides scientific merit are needed in order to distinguish between the many competitive proposals, since not all of them can be funded.

The NSB task force expects to finalize the new criterion this fall. The recommendations will then be presented to the full NSB for approval at the board's December meeting, an NSF spokesperson says.

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