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   October 2013


Rethinking Research?

By Russ Harrison

Congressional leaders have proposed changing the way research projects are selected for federal funding at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has begun circulating draft legislation that would add an extra level of review to all NSF grant applications beyond just peer review. Named the High Quality Research Act (HQRA), Rep. Smith’s proposal would require the NSF Director to certify that all NSF-funded research projects were “high-quality” and would benefit the American people.

Rep. Smith is concerned about what he sees as frivolous research projects being funded by the NSF, particularly political science and the other humanities research. He expressed his concerns directly to the NSF at a Congressional hearing on 19 April, and in a letter to NSF Acting Director Dr. Cora Morrett shortly thereafter..

In a September USA Today op-ed, Rep. Smith and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) spelled out their concerns in more detail. In that Op-Ed, Reps. Smith and Cantor singled out several recent NSF grants as being “questionable.” These include:

  • $220,000 to study National Geographic photos

  • $280,000 for a history of Chiapas, Mexico

  • $197,127 to study the Bronze Age in Cypress

  • $233,141 to study Mayan architecture and the salt industry

  • $19,684 to study the causes of stress in Bolivia

The Congressmen insist that they are strong supporters of research and of the peer review process. But, they explain, “With limited funding, we must prioritize. Congress is right to ask why NSF chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives.”

Their concerns extend beyond the grants themselves. Rep. Smith has made it clear that he drafted the HQRA only after the White House and NSF failed to respond to his concerns. In particular, the NSF has refused to make the referee reports for the questionable grants available to him and his staff. Referee reports are the reviews of grant requests completed by researchers that create the basis of a peer review.

While the HQRA has not been formally introduced (and so has no bill number), the research community has already expressed strong opposition to it. Their concerns focus on four issues:

First, there is widespread opposition to politicians getting involved with the grant making process at any point. The peer review process currently used by NSF relies on scientists and other researchers to decide which grants are the most worthy of being funded. Any other criteria would weaken the peer review process and reduce, not improve, the quality of NSF grants.

Second, while Rep. Smith has said he supports scientific research in general, many in the engineering and scientific communities question this commitment. They fear the Congressman’s real goal is reducing funding for research overall, and that his complaints about the NSF are just a way of legitimizing these efforts.

Third, it is not at all clear that the Director of the NSF can state that any proposed research will produces “quality” research, nor that the result would benefit the American public, before the study has been conducted. Many think the criteria Rep. Smith is trying to impose would require the Director to assert how effective a study has been before the study has been completed or even begun, which is not a reasonable request.

Fourth, and most troubling, scientists and engineers are concerned that the HQRA would allow politics and ideology to creep into the NSF review process itself. For example, Congress could in the future define “quality” to mean “not about global warming,” or “proving genetically modified foods are bad.” If politicians can tinker with peer review a little, they can tinker with it a lot. Any such tinkering could, over time, dramatically undermine the independence and integrity of the NSF process, and could spread to all other federal research grant programs.

On the other hand, some researchers have pointed out that Rep. Smith’s proposal could help scientists and engineers. By restricting grants to the social sciences, the Chairman would be making more money available for research in other fields — especially engineering and the hard sciences. Chairman Smith has said this is, in fact, one of his goals.

Interestingly, Congress had a similar fight shortly after the NSF was created. In 1975, Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) also expressed concerns about the quality of research being funded by the NSF. But in that case, the solution was to require the NSF to use a peer review process when choosing which projects to fund. There was a bipartisan consensus that giving researchers autonomy over the grant process would best ensure that the best proposals get funded. That consensus seems to be fading.

The catalyst for this controversy is the federal budget crunch. When federal discretionary spending was rising regularly, there was less pressure to ensure that every budget dollar was spent correctly. But with declining budgets, legislators need to make difficult calls about what gets funded and what does not. Chairman Smith’s HQRA is an attempt to force the NSF to do a better job prioritizing to focus increasingly scarcer research dollars on programs Congress thinks are the most likely to pay off for the country.

It is important to note that Congress has a legitimate responsibility to make sure all government agencies spend taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible. This gives Congress both the right and the responsibility to make sure the NSF’s grant process works properly. It does not, however, mean Chairman Smith’s proposals are the best way for Congress to meet their responsibilities.

Additionally, the NSF would undoubtedly say that the agency already prioritizes spending in the best possible way — through the peer review process.

Nobody expects the HQRA to pass into law. It is doubtful that it will even be formally introduced. However, the American Competes Act needs to be reauthorized this year. This bill authorizes many of the federal programs that fund scientific and engineering research. As Chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the Competes Act, it would be easy for Chairman Smith to insert language into the reauthorization bill that forces the NSF to change its procedures.

While changes in the Competes Act will likely be less than what is in the HQRA, many researchers are still worried that Chairman Smith may take this opportunity to inappropriately insert politics into the NSF grant making process.
The America Competes reauthorization bill (to be named the EISTEIN Act or the FIRST Act) is expected to be considered in late 2013 or early 2014.



Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


Russell T. Harrison is IEEE-USA’s Senior Legislative Representative for Grassroots Affairs.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


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