Political scientists trying to win a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) should explain how their research will contribute to the nation’s economic development or security.
That advice, offered publicly last Friday by NSF, is a change from present practices. It reflects the language in a controversial amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to a government-wide spending bill that Congress approved this past March . He believes that NSF’s two existing criteria for reviewing proposals, their scientific merit and the “broader impacts” of the research, don’t ensure that the agency’s $10 million political science program will be spent wisely. In effect, Coburn’s amendment adds a third criterion, namely, that the research contribute either to economic development or national security. The research community has roundly attacked the new language.
A 1 November letter posted on the agency’s website tells applicants to “keep in mind” the Coburn language when preparing submissions for the next grant deadline, 15 January. Joanne Tornow, NSF’s acting head of the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate that includes political science, writes that  “[t]he relationship of the proposed research to these goals should be addressed both in the broader impacts section of the project summary and within the project description.”
That new approach troubles some political scientists. “Incorporating the Coburn language will change the game for PIs, for reviewers, and for program officers,” predicts Jim Granato, head of the Hobby Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston in Texas and a former NSF program officer. “You may scare off some people,” he adds, speculating that some researchers may seek funding from other NSF program areas, such as law or sociology, to avoid being affected by the Coburn language, which applies only to the political science program.
NSF acting Director Cora Marrett, however, is playing down the impact of the congressional language on the community and on the quality of NSF’s portfolio. “The letter to the community says the present law is in effect,” she said yesterday at the annual Washington meeting of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA). “But does that mean we expect every proposal submitted to be about national security and economic development? Not at all. We know the community. And if the approach is broad enough, it should not be a problem to support the first-rate projects coming in. So I’m not worried about the consequences to the program.”
At the COSSA meeting, Marrett and other senior agency officials described how the agency has struggled to integrate the Coburn amendment into its merit review system. In particular, the challenge was to apply the third criterion to proposals that had been written before it was adopted.
NSF officials didn’t want “to change the rules in midstream,” Tornow explains. So last spring, the agency decided to review those proposals already in hand using the two traditional criteria. Then, several weeks later, NSF convened a second panel that applied the Coburn language “to those proposals deemed most meritorious.” Program managers then weighed both sets of comments before making their funding recommendations to higher-ups. Tornow said NSF will be notifying scientists later this month about the fate of their proposals.
In contrast, the panel reviews of the January 2014 submissions will take place in one step rather than two. In addition to applying NSF’s regular criteria, Tornow writes, reviewers “will be asked to provide input on the degree to which the proposed research projects promote national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Programs officers will take those views into consideration when making funding recommendations, Tornow explains.
Tornow told the COSSA audience that the new process “is in line with what we always do at NSF.” That may be true, technically, but it will still require political scientists to play by new rules.