A Dangerous Approach: Lawmaker Proposes Changes to How the National Science Foundation Funds Science

May 2, 2013 | 10:58 am
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

The targeting of specific government grants has become old hat in Washington DC, an easy way to score cheap political points. Targets have included fruit fly research in Paris, studies of duck genitalia, and research involving shrimp on a treadmill, but in all cases, further investigation has shown that the seemingly odd projects have direct ties to real-world applications. These skirmishes have now escalated into power grabs that serve to undermine entire fields of research.

Earlier this year, for example, the Senate passed an amendment offered by Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) that would restrict the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding political science. Under the claim that funding the discipline “hold[s] little promise to save an American’s life from a threatening condition or to advance America’s competitiveness in the world,” the amendment passed. Although political science represents only a small fraction of the NSF funding budget, the American Political Science Association ominously warned of its potential impacts for science in general. In a public statement, the association said, “The amendment creates an exceptionally dangerous slippery slope… At risk is any and all research in any and all disciplines funded by the NSF. The amendment makes all scientific research vulnerable to the whims of political pressure.”

Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science committee, has proposed new criteria for how the NSF funds scientific research.

Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science committee, has proposed new criteria for how the NSF funds scientific research.

A Concerning Proposal

Now, the House Science Committee may soon push legislation that would undermine the peer-review process that the NSF currently uses to award funding for basic scientific research. The author, Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), purports that the changes proposed in a “Discussion Draft” of the bill would “improve” the peer-review process, but researchers are expressing concern about the new criteria and what they mean for the future of government-funded science. Specifically, the bill draft that was obtained would require the NSF director to post on the 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.

While these provisions might sound benign, the rhetoric here, of course, is a trap. Scientists who resist congressional meddling can be labeled as elitist and out of touch. “Shouldn’t the American people have a say in how their tax dollars are spent?” thunder the politicians. “Do these scientists think they are above everyone else?”

Yet the people do speak. Through their representatives, in theory, the people determine how much money we will invest in science. Then we trust experts to dole out these precious resources for the maximum good. This is as it should be. I trust my doctor to tell me what medicine is best for an infection.

How Research Proposals Get Funded

To understand the effect this law would have if enacted, let’s take a look at the way the NSF funds proposals now. The NSF puts out requests for proposals on scientific topics—anything from computer science to geology. In response, the agency receives hundreds of research proposals for each funding opportunity from researchers all around the country (40,000 proposals per year of which 11,000 are funded). To sort through this daunting pile of original intellectual thought, the NSF brings in panels of scientific experts. The panels are comprised of researchers who volunteer their time and expertise to recommend the best proposals to fund. And how do they decide? It’s no small task.

The panelists read and discuss the merits and weaknesses of each proposal for two full days before developing recommendations to the NSF on which grants most deserve funding based on the criteria. And what criteria do they use?

Contrary to what the proposed bill text suggests, the NSF already does choose projects that score the highest on “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts.” Recognizing that sometimes researchers need to do a better job of explaining the potential impact of studies, the NSF in 2011 updated its review guidelines to require applicants to better outline the potential benefits of their research.

The National Science Foundation awards 11,000 grants per year to researchers across the nation.

The National Science Foundation awards 11,000 grants per year to researchers across the nation.

The Value of Scientific Expertise

These benefits are best left determined by experts in the field. Members of Congress shouldn’t judge the value of proposals on chemical oceanography any more than I (an environmental engineer by training) should be able to judge the value of research proposals on theoretical physics. The truth is that many basic scientific research projects with no apparent application to the real world have proven to directly benefit society, but it might take an expert to recognize this.

Take SARS, for example. When Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome broke, scientists were able to identify and quickly respond to the rapidly changing disease. Roberta DeBiasi, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s National Medical Center cites the outbreak of the SARS virus as an example of the importance of basic science: “Had scientists not been studying a related corona virus similar to the one that caused SARS, they would have lacked critical information that helped them understand the virus and contain its spread.”

The NSF itself has created a Nifty Fifty List that highlights the many applications of the research it has funded—scientific progress from which we all enjoy the benefits. The far-reaching advances include everything from tumor detection to internet access for persons with disabilities to DNA sequencing and disease tracking to Doppler radar, fiber optics, and web browsing. The list goes on and on.

The Dangers of Politicizing Science

President Obama reinforced the importance of independent scientific inquiry in a speech he made on April 29 at the 150th anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences. He stated, “In all the sciences we have to make sure that we are supporting the idea that they aren’t subject to politics; they are not skewed by an agenda … that we make sure we go where the evidence leads us.” Most importantly, he said, government and scientific leaders need to “make sure [research] does not fall victim to political maneuvers.”

These attempts to stifle scientific inquiry are born of cynicism about the scientific process. They are born of mistrust about how science, and the peer-review system, work. This line of thinking is bad for science and bad for democracy, and should be vigorously resisted.

Scientists were left holding the bag when the Coburn amendment passed. We must be more vigilant to ensure that this is not the case again.