Defending NSF and Scientific Peer Review

May 17, 2013

Lamar SmithIn a rebuff to House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s investigation of the way the National Science Foundation does business, Acting Director Cora Marrett refused to provide the Committee with reviewer comments on five social science research projects it is funding. Arguing that doing so would seriously breach the integrity of the peer review process, Dr. Marrett instead offered to brief the committee on how NSF selects among the many research proposals it receives each year. She also promised to provide general information on how the five grants of concern pass muster.

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX)

Chairman Smith expressed disappointment with the NSF response, and Committee staff said the refusal was simply a “bump in the road” to obtaining reviewer comments. Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson was so alarmed by Chairman Smith’s request to the NSF that she wrote to him on April 26, expressing her concerns: “I cannot stand by silently as you continue this political intrusion into one of our Nation’s and indeed, one of the world’s most important scientific organizations.”

The request for reviewer comments followed the leak of a draft bill which would require the NSF director to certify that every grant is of “the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and … is not duplicative of other research project being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

Taken together, the draft bill and the request reveal, at best, a lack of understanding of the NSF mission and the long-standing practices the Foundation follows in its highly admired proposal review process. Ranking Member Johnson noted in her letter to Chairman Smith, “In the history of this Committee, no Chairman has ever put themselves forward as an expert in the science that underlies specific grant proposals funded by the NSF.  In the more than two decades of Committee leadership that I have worked with…I have never seen a Chairman decide to go after specific grants simply because the Chairman does not believe them to be of high value.”

Both actions drew a strong rebuke from the scientific community, including APS President Michael Turner (NSF Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, 2003-2006), who joined 17 former NSF assistant directors in signing a May 8 letter to Chairman Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice-Johnson, which stated that the Committee’s treatment of NSF “…represents a very dangerous precedent and puts Congress in the position of second guessing the scientific judgment of experts with significant credentials in their respective fields of science. If the investigation suggested in this letter goes forward, the Committee’s actions will create a chilling environment that will severely damage a merit review system that is the envy of the world.”

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