Two weeks of intense attacks on the National Science Foundation and the peer-review process

The past two weeks were tumultuous for the National Science Foundation thanks to two hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives, a pair of letters passed between high-ranking members of Congress, and a controversial new bill. Discussions between Congress and NSF centered on the peer-review process and a question, most commonly coming from Republican representatives and senators, of whether the federal government should fund social science research in difficult economic times.

House hearings

On April 17, the full House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held two hearings. The first hearing was attended by Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren and focused on the budget requests for science-funding agencies in President Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget. The Republican members of the committee posed several questions to Holdren about the legitimacy of funding social science research and ways to improve peer review at NSF to avoid funding “frivolous” projects during difficult financial times. Holdren said that neither he nor any member of Congress was qualified to determine the merits of social science research, and he staunchly defended the peer-review process at the agency, saying at one point, “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.”

Later that day, the House SST committee grilled acting NSF Director Cora Marrett and National Science Board Chairman Dan Arvizu over the FY14 budget request for the agency. Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, asked several questions about how peer review could be improved at NSF to ensure that the research funded by the agency is in the best interest of the American taxpayer. Arvizu and Marrett defended the criteria NSF uses for funding decisions, intellectual merit and broader impacts, and resisted the application of congressionally defined metrics to funding decisions.

Dueling letters

The questioning of funding decisions by NSF continued after these hearings. In a letter to Marrett dated April 25, Smith wrote, “Based on my review of NSF-funded studies, I have concerns regarding some grants approved by the Foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF’s ‘intellectual merit’ guideline.” Smith named five grants as questionable, and he requested Marrett send the committee the scientific reviews of each grant as well as the program officer’s assessment. Smith gave Marrett two weeks to reply.

The next day, the ranking member of the House SST committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, sent a scathing reply to Smith’s letter. Johnson’s letter described Smith’s request of grant evaluation materials as, “the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process” at NSF. She also said that, in her two decades on the committee serving with six different chairmen, Smith’s intrusions on peer review were unprecedented and alarming. Finally, Johnson captured the concerns of the scientific community by writing to Smith, “you are sending a chilling message to the entire scientific community that peer review may always be trumped by political review.”

The High Quality Research Act

Meanwhile, the broader scientific community has become aware of a bill that has been circulating among the House SST staff. The High Quality Research Act, which has not yet been introduced in the House but which will probably be sponsored by Smith, would require the NSF director to guarantee that each grant funded by the agency:

  • Advances the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and secures the national defense by promoting the progress of science
  • Is the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of, utmost importance to society at large,
  • And is not duplicative of other research funded by the agency.

The ASBMB position

The level of congressional oversight of peer review suggested by Smith in his letter to the NSF could have broad consequences for peer review and scientific progress. The ASBMB always has been a staunch defender of the peer-review process. Peer review is the best system to ensure that only meritorious research is rewarded. This system has been in place since the inception of the NSF, the National Institutes of Health and other federal funding agencies, and it is part of the reason the U.S. is the global leader in scientific research and innovation. Furthermore, the extra layers of internal review after the initial peer review ensure that the grants funded by federal agencies are of the highest caliber and conform to the agency’s mission. The peer review system is not broken.

The ASBMB strongly opposes any attempt by political entities to micromanage the funding portfolios of individual agencies or the peer-review process for two reasons. First, while we acknowledge that no system is perfect, peer-review is widely regarded as the most effective at determining meritorious grant applications. Congressional micromanagement would undermine peer review by redefining meritorious research as that which meets arbitrary standards defined by those with little understanding of the fields they are regulating. Second, the hallmark of the American research enterprise is a sense of unbound curiosity coupled with highly trained critical-thinking skills. Legislation that dictates what scientists can and cannot be curious about would erode and eventually destroy this enterprise. The idea that legislation that narrows the scope of the scientific endeavor can improve the peer review system and speed the discovery process shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the peer-review process and the nature of scientific inquiry.

The ASBMB is confident that the High Quality Research Act, while concerning, will never become law. Members of both parties in both houses understand the value of an unfettered peer-review process. However, the ASBMB is concerned about the thought processes behind the legislation. The very nature of scientific research makes knowing the outcome of proposed research an impossibility. The outcome of research cannot be guaranteed, and the benefits may be realized only years or decades after it was conducted. This does not mean the research is frivolous but merely a step on an unseen path to discovery. This holds true regardless of scientific discipline.

On its own and in conjunction with its allies in the Coalition for National Science Funding, the ASBMB is engaging members of the House Space, Science, and Technology committee, which has oversight of NSF activities, and the Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over NSF appropriations. Stay tuned to the Policy Blotter for more updates on this story.

UPDATE: Speaking at the National Academy of Sciences today, President Obama weighed in on the debate over peer review at NSF without directly referencing it. Obama said, “In order for us to maintain our edge, we’ve got to protect our rigorous peer review system.” He also said that we should make sure we are “promoting the integrity of the scientific process” in all disciplines, including the social sciences.

6 thoughts on “Two weeks of intense attacks on the National Science Foundation and the peer-review process

  1. Would this not be counterproductive to the argument for less government involvement we keep hearing about? You will never have diversity and innovation by forcing all scientists to compete for grant money along narrowly defined projects. We already see problems in academia with too many labs not willing to explore branch out and explore new areas of interest. Based on the dollar values in the grants listed, we are far better off funding projects that do not meet Mr. Smith’s standards than becoming a nation who loses our position as a lead in scientific innovation.

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