The last year was a difficult one for the National Science Foundation and their merit-review process for awarding grants. In April, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chair of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology committee held a hearing and sent a letter to acting NSF Director Cora Marrett questioning the validity of grants funded by the Foundation. Rep. Smith was also responsible for drafting the High Quality Research Act and the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act. Both bills would alter the merit-review process at the NSF to ensure each grant funded is in the national interest. Rep. Smith has said that his goal with these actions is to increase transparency and accountability at the NSF.
So what does 2014 hold? The response of the scientific community and House Democrats to the HQRA appears to have killed the bill as a standalone piece of legislation. However, remnants of it are included in the FIRST Act, which is apparently undergoing revision since it was first introduced at the beginning of November. While nothing has been confirmed, rumors are that the FIRST Act will be introduced sometime early in the new year. Many in the scientific community hope that the next version of the bill lacks the language regarding peer-review. To be clear, the original draft of the FIRST Act had many faults; however, stripping out the peer-review provisions would be an important first step to crafting a reasonable NSF reauthorization bill.
The wild card in this process is the NSF itself. Dr. Marrett has instituted a new program at the Foundation with the goal of aligning all directorates, divisions, programs and awarded grants with the stated goals of the agency. At the end of this alignment, it should be easier for the NSF to demonstrate how each funded grant application satisfies the Foundation’s mission. While Dr. Marrett said that this program was initiated before Rep. Smith’s foray into remaking peer-review criteria, the goals of the program—to increase transparency and accountability at the NSF—and the timing of its introduction are somewhat suspect.
To our knowledge, Dr. Marrett’s new initiative has not altered the House Republicans’ plan to introduce the FIRST Act. But will it be enough to soften the language in the legislation? Follow the ASBMB Policy Blotter to find out!
Important dates for peer review legislation in 2014:
- Mid to late-winter: The FIRST Act expected to be introduced.
See what else we’re watching in 2014: