The bad idea is contained in
legislation drafted by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Smith’s bill would require NSF to promise that any research it funds “advance[s]” national health, prosperity, and security, “is ground breaking,” and is not being supported by another federal agency. In a statement released 30 April, Smith said the bill “improves” on NSF’s current process of peer review “by adding a layer of accountability” intended to “ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent on the highest-quality research.”
Well yes, but there are some layers of accountability that are the wrong kind to add. You could pass a law saying all surgeries are required to get approval from a panel of random people collected at the nearest comic book store, and that would be adding a layer of accountability, but of the wrong kind.
Presidential science adviser John Holdren says it’s the wrong kind.
Holdren said that Smith’s bill, called the “High Quality Research Act,” would wrongly inject lawmakers into a decision-making process that he described as “the gold standard” for the rest of the world. NSF now judges grant proposals on their “intellectual merit” and on the “broader impacts” of the research on society, and Holdren said that having politicians revise those criteria is fraught with danger.
“I have no objection to looking at the peer-review process to make sure that it is everything it can be,” Holdren said in response to a question after his speech. “But I think … adding Congress as reviewers is a mistake. The basis of peer review is to employ experts in the relevant fields. Most members of Congress are not experts in the relevant fields. They are certainly experts in making decisions under uncertainty on complicated issues. But that does not qualify them to review research proposals in science.”
Different jobs, you see. Different kinds of work; different kinds of expertise.
Also, the knives are out for the social sciences.
Holdren also commented on the interest that Smith and other congressional Republicans have shown in NSF’s social science programs. Last week, Smith sent a letter to NSF asking the agency to explain how five recent grants in the social and behavioral sciences “adhere to NSF’s ‘intellectual merit’ guideline.” Most scientists see that inquiry as part of a broader attack by congressional Republicans on the social sciences. In March, Congress approved an amendment to the 2013 spending bill that would prevent NSF from funding any political science research unless the director certified that it addresses economic development or national security.
Holdren defended the value of social science research and criticized attempts to exclude it from NSF’s portfolio. “Political science research helps us understand the actions of people around the world … and our own democracy,” he said. “Economics research has clarified not only the economic basis for innovation but also its determinants. Social science research has helped us make hurricane warnings more effective, improved methods of instruction in the classroom and the workplace, and manage common resources more efficiently without centralized regulation.”
And yet politicians have to be told that. You’d think they could figure it out for themselves, but those of the congressional Republican type apparently can’t.