Friday, May 17, 2013

NSF Refuses to Give Congressman Access to Review Comments

As we have mentioned in earlier posts, CSEP is the U.S. partner on a EU project looking at how governments encourage, fund, and assess research and innovation that drives towards the common good (i.e.social desirability). As part of our research, we have been closely studying the proposal review system of the National Science Foundation.  NSF users two merit review criteria to review proposals, intellectual merit and broader impacts. This last, which looks at the potential impact the proposed project may "benefit society or advance socially desirable outcomes" has also been used as a way to justify why taxpayer money should be used to support basic research.

The types of projects that NSF has come under fire in the past few years. For example, in March of this year, the Senate added an amendment to a finance bill that severely limits the ability of the NSF t oapprove any grants involving political science unless the agency can certify them as "promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States." This amendment was proposed by Senator Tom Coburn, who has been a sharp critic of the agency.

This Wednesday, Science Magazine published an article on the news section of its site discussion how NSF has recently refused a request from the chairman of the House of Representatives science committee to obtain review comments on five social science outreach projects it is funding. In a letter to Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) the agency defended its need to preserve the confidentiality of the peer-review process. Representative Smith has also drafted a bill called the "High Quality Research Act" which would add a layer of oversight to the peer review process and potentially politicizes decisions about what grants receive NSF funding.

Specifically the bill (as it currently reads) would require the NSF director to post on NSF's web site, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:  

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."
NSF's current guidelines ask reviewers to consider the "intellectual merit" of a proposed research project as well as its "broader impacts" on the scientific community and society. (original article)
The bill is being justified as a way to make NSF more accountable for how it spends taxpayer money and to stop funding for questionable research.  Critics of the bill say that it ignores the importance of duplicate research in science as a way to verify results, and that it would wrongly involve lawmakers in a peer review system that is the "gold standard" for the science community.
So what do you think? Should there be more governmental oversight on the projects funded by agencies like the NSF?

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