Congress takes a worrying interest in peer review at NSF

Capitol Hill Spring

The U.S. Capitol, where the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology is getting to be way more “House of Cards” than “The West Wing.”

Science Insider reported yesterday that Lamar Smith, a Republican congressman from Texas and the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology, is planning to introduce legislation to change the way the National Science Foundation decides how to fund proposed projects. The article doesn’t provide access to the full text of the draft bill, but says that it would require NSF director to certify, on the Foundation’s website, that every funded project

1) “… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science; 2) “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and 3) “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

This is on the heels of an April 17 hearing in which the committee chairman suggested that “we might be able to improve the process by which NSF makes its funding decisions,” asking acting NSF Director Cora Merrett how the agency could better ensure that it funds projects in “the national interest.”

Of course, it’s often difficult to point to specific applications that any particular project of basic scientific research might have for “the national interest.” That’s the point of NSF—to fund research that won’t be done by the private sector because the “payoff” is just … knowledge. Not some specific technology or profit or benefit, but the foundation for work that might, eventually, lead to all of those things.

The American Society of Agronomy has posted online a copy of a letter [PDF], dated 25 April 2013, which Smith sent to Merrett to request further information about the review process for five specific grants mentioned in the April 17 hearing. The letter singles out the following grants:

  • Award No. 1247824: “Picturing Animals in National Geographic, 1888-2008″ ($227,437)
  • Award No. 1230911: “Comparative Histories of Scientific Conservation: Nature, Science, and Society in Patagonian and Amazonian South America” ($195,761)
  • Award No. 1230365: “The International Criminal Court and the Pursuit of Justice” ($260,001)
  • Award No. 1226483: “Comparative Network Analysis: Mapping Global Social Interactions” ($435,000)
  • Award No. 1157551: “Regulating Accountability and Transparency in China’s Dairy Industry” ($152,464)

Which, those all look like worthy topics of study to me, and not especially large grants, for the most part—but then I’m not on the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology.

These developments are making a lot of the science-y people in my social networks (i.e., most of my social networks) nervous, and being widely regarded as a Bad Thing. With a fair bit of justification. The Republican members of the committee have established reputations as hostile to basic scientific facts on the topics of climate change and evolution. We’ve also recently seen Senator Tom Coburn (Republican, natch, of Oklahoma) engineer restrictions on NSF’s ability to fund social science, and we’ve recently seen conservative commentators attacking specific NSF projects on the evolution of duck genitalia and sexual reproduction in snails.

To some degree, this is a perennial part of the politics of government science funding in the U.S.—alleged fiscal conservatives send interns to trawl the NSF award catalog for examples of studies that sound a bit silly if you don’t read the abstract, then use them as an excuse to rail against the decadence of a Federal funding agency that that spent, in 2012, funds totaling about $7.033 billion, or about 0.28% of the $2.469 trillion 2012 Federal budget. (That’s right—to create a physical representation of the portion of each dollar of Federal spending that goes to NSF, you’d need a penny and a pair of those CutCo utility shears.)

But this feels different, because we’ve seen multiple attacks on the integrity of NSF’s grant review process over the last couple months, just as NSF (along with every other part of the Federal Government) is coming to terms [PDF] with life under the arbitrary budget cuts of “sequestration.” We’re already staring down the barrel of another year of funding uncertainty, and it seems an entire political party is devoting itself to demanding that things become even worse.

The actual legal language cited by ScienceInsider could have zero practical impact; given a friendly audience, any NSF director worth his or her salt should be able to argue that NSF’s intellectual merit review criteria more or less account for those three points above. But requiring the director to “certify” those three criteria for every grant gives hostile congresspeople an excuse to pillory NSF any time they can create a quibble about one of them. Which means more news cycles about funding allegedly wasted on frivolous basic research.

It looks like Republicans are bent on making NSF into the next National Endowment for the Arts. After years of ginned-up controversy about specific, often deliberately mis-read, works of art, NEA’s funding in 2012 was less than it was in 1979—and that’s without adjusting for inflation.

So, yeah, those of us who work in basic science, or care about it, have some reason to feel nervous.

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About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy Yoder is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota. He also blogs at Denim and Tweed and Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, and tweets under the handle @jbyoder.
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