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NSF Peer Review Under Scrutiny by House Science Panel

18 April 2013 11:30 am
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U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Science monitor. Lamar Smith has suggested a new litmus test for all research grants.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) may soon be getting some unsolicited advice from Congress on how to improve its vaunted peer-review system.

Yesterday, over the course of two contentious hearings, the new chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology floated the idea of having every NSF grant application include a statement of how the research, if funded, "would directly benefit the American people." Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that he was not trying to "micromanage" the $7 billion agency but that NSF needs to do a better job of deciding what to fund given the low success rates for grant applicants and a shrinking federal budget.

The morning hearing examined the president's overall 2014 budget request for science and featured presidential science adviser John Holdren. The afternoon hearing focused on NSF's 2014 budget request. The timing gave Republican legislators the chance to level a double-barreled attack on several grants in the social sciences that NSF has awarded in recent years.

The targeting of individual research projects with frivolous-sounding titles is a cottage industry in Washington, going back decades and practiced by legislators from both parties. Last month, however, it took a dramatic turn, when Congress approved an amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to a spending bill; the language would choke off funding this year for political science research at NSF unless the director certifies that the research addresses economic or national security interests.

Smith's suggestion, made during the afternoon hearing, could signal yet another twist in the debate. It also suggests that his thinking had evolved in the 2 hours between hearings. Instead of confining himself to social science research, as he and his Republican colleagues had done during the morning hearing with Holdren, Smith focused on NSF's entire portfolio in his afternoon comments to acting NSF Director Cora Marrett and Dan Arvizu, chair of the National Science Board that oversees NSF.

"These questions are not easy," Smith said in his opening statement. "It requires recognition that we might be able to improve the process by which NSF makes its funding decisions."

Later in the hearing, Smith made the case for a new yardstick with which to measure an NSF grant that would focus on its likely contribution to "the national interest." Turning to Arvizu, he said, "If there's a way to improve the process by which NSF makes its awards, I assume that you'd support it."

Arvizu initially balked, explaining that the board had recently reviewed NSF's two existing criteria—intellectual merit and the broader impacts of the research. He said he was concerned that Smith's suggestion might "compromise the integrity of the process." But Smith kept pressing. "Are you saying that requiring the research to benefit Americans would be limiting?" he asked.

Marrett offered a compromise. "Could I suggest that we ask the science board what it means [for research] to be for the benefit of the U.S. population?" she suggested. Not wanting to appear recalcitrant, Arvizu relented. "We're certainly open to seeing if these new guidelines would serve the national interest," he told Smith.

Smith has a ready vehicle for implementing his suggestions. Committee staff members are already working on legislation that "authorizes"—or creates a legal framework—for NSF's programs. Initially, the science committee had been expected to include NSF in a larger reauthorization bill, called the America COMPETES Act. Passed in 2010, COMPETES covers several research agencies under the panel's jurisdiction and expires this year. But the committee is now weighing whether to break out NSF in a separate bill, with a markup possibly as early as next month.

Holdren was the target of the morning hearing, with Republicans repeatedly questioning the value of certain NSF grants to social scientists. Some favorite examples were a review of how animals have been depicted in National Geographic magazine since 1888 and an analysis of how China's dairy industry handled the 2008 melamine poisoning scandal. "Can you suggest how we might make sure that those who decide whether to approve these grants might be persuaded to focus on more helpful subjects, more scientific subjects, and more basic research?" Smith asked in the gentlest of several versions of the same question put to Holdren during the 2-hour hearing.

Holdren conceded that he was not competent to judge the merits of particular projects. But he repeatedly defended peer review as a mechanism for funding research, both in general and as practiced at NSF.

"The peer-review process is the backbone of our basic research enterprise, and we've done very well with it," he told Representative Randy Weber (R-TX). "That doesn't say it never makes a mistake. But I think it's better than any alternative, including me or you trying to determine what is good basic research in fields not our own."

Holdren didn't flinch when asked specifically by Representative Bill Posey (R-FL) whether he agreed that Coburn's two criteria—that a political science grant must relate to economic or national security interests—"were a good and proper filter" to apply to all proposals. "I respectfully disagree," Holdren replied. "I think that it is too narrowly drawn."

Posey then asked Holdren to suggest other criteria that should be applied. The question gave Holdren a chance to deliver his real take-home message. "I think 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," he told Posey.

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