An update on peer review and the National Science Foundation

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chair of the House Science, Space and Technology committee has spurred two distinct, yet related, discussions regarding peer review and the National Science Foundation. First, in an April 25 letter to NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett, Smith wrote, “I have concerns regarding some grants approved by the Foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF’s ‘intellectual merit’ guideline.” Smith went on to request the notes from the peer reviewers and NSF program officers regarding five grants awarded by the agency. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, ranking member of the SST committee, wrote a fierce response and called Smith’s request, “the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF.” Since this exchange two weeks ago, fellow Democrats, former NSF directors and assistant directors and many scientific societies have joined Johnson in calling on Smith to rescind his letter. The deadline Smith gave Marrett to respond with the requested materials was May 9. Marrett has asked for a one-week extension.

The second track concerns the High Quality Research Act, a draft bill proposed by Smith. This act would require the NSF director to make a written statement that every grant funded by the agency will “advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense.” Proponents of this legislation claim it will improve peer review by ensuring that taxpayer dollars are used appropriately. Critics state that this legislation essentially asks the NSF director to predict the value of every grant issued by the agency. Just last week, a staff member of the Science, Space and Technology committee spoke to ScienceInsider about the bill. The staff member confirmed that Smith and others on the committee want to ensure a level of “accountability and thoughtfulness” in the funding decisions of the agency, which, they claim, will not affect the peer-review process. Nevertheless, the bill has met stiff resistance in Congress and the scientific community. Even the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren and President Obama have spoken out against Congressional intrusion into peer-review at NSF and other agencies. This bill, while troubling, is unlikely to become law.

The ASBMB supports Congress’ right to question the actions of federal agencies and demand accountability for how taxpayer money is spent. However, the recent events concerning peer review at NSF are troubling. Peer review is not perfect, and conversations have been started at the NSF and National Institutes of Health on ways to improve it. Yet these conversations are not represented in Smith’s bill, and it is not clear how the provisions in the bill would actually improve peer review without endangering important research. We will continue to monitor this story as it develops.

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