Friday, May 10, 2013

Not Safe for Funding: The N.S.F. and the Economics of Science

lamar-smith-580.jpgLast month, Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, introduced a divisive new bill, the High Quality Research Act, that would change the criteria by which the National Science Foundation evaluates research projects and awards funding. (The N.S.F., with a budget of seven billion dollars, funds roughly twenty per cent of federally supported basic research in American universities.) Currently, proposals are evaluated through a traditional peer-review process, in which scientists and experts with knowledge of the relevant fields evaluate the projects’ “intellectual merits” and “broader impacts.” Peer review is a central tenet of modern academic science, and, according to critics, the new bill threatens to supersede it with politics.

John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said last week that “adding Congress as reviewers is a mistake.” Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson warned more forcefully that Representative Smith was “sending a chilling message to the entire scientific community that peer review may always be trumped by political review.” But in a statement, Representative Smith said the draft bill “improves on [the peer-review process] by adding a layer of accountability.” The bill’s new three-point criteria for funding require that a project be “in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense”; solve “problems that are of the utmost importance to society at large”; and not be “duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

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