Another bad idea

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.


  1. Claire Ramsey says

    Having been through the NSF’s peer review process (as a funded PI and as a reviewer) I can with certainty say that Lamar Smith (R-TX) would be unlikely to meet with success as a proposer at NSF. Thank you Ophelia. Congress has no business or expertise that suits them for participation in the scientific peer review process.

  2. says

    And wouldn’t it be nice if Lamar Smith and his likeminded colleagues grasped that principle, and respected it and understood its value and importance. Yes, it would.

  3. CaitieCat says

    Hard not to see the attack on poli sci and economics as being politically motivated on their part. Both disciplines have been producing a lot of work in the last couple of years showing what a dreadful mess the Republicans have become, whether compared historically, politically, or economically. If there’re no grants for grad students to be able to question the Word of God Reinharts and Rogoffs of the world, then AusteriTesteria* can continue until morale improves.

    * The ill-favoured passion for austerity to be found among the testerical**.

    ** Testerical – what to call a group of men who have eschewed thinking with their brains for a different organ.

  4. says

    Here in Canada, our Great Leader doesn’t think we should commit sociology. I have no doubt where his party would stand on this type of review. Of course, we are well along the way to only doing politically approved research here anyway.

  5. Your Name's not Bruce? says

    But-but-but it has the word SOCIAL in it! That’s just three letters away from SOCIALIST!!!11!!

    I really wonder if that could be part of it.

  6. quixote says

    (OT, but I have to give CaitieCat a shout-out for that wonerful word: testerical.

    Testerical, testerical, testerical!


  7. left0ver1under says

    The saying oft attributed to Richard Feynman says, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

    Most of the rightwing theists and reactionaries “think” they understand science – ANY science – but they clearly don’t.

  8. says

    Just think of all the research that could be shut down:

    “Nicotine is a poison” – Tobacco is a $35 billion a year industry. Such research will cause irreparable economic harm and will damage this country. Research denied.

    “Global warming is a threat” – The petroleum industry is even bigger than tobacco. Such research will cause irreparable economic harm and will damage this country. Research denied.

    “Gun control laws save lives” – The NRA and other big political donors will pull our own funding if this research is done. Our being voted out of office will cause irreparable harm. Research denied.

    “The effectiveness of prayer in fighting cancer” – Research approved. Oops, you mean you are claiming it is NOT effective? That is a threat to the religious doctrines that we assert with no rational thought to be the basis of this country’s moral fiber. If this report is published, it will cause irreparable harm. Research retroactively denied: pay us back or go to jail on charges of fraud and embezzlement.

    FSM, I wish I were being satirical.

  9. bonobrat says

    Next on the chopping block: Any NSF research supporting “evolution”. Hey, if it’s already been proved, why spend more taxpayer dollars re-proving it? And if it hasn’t been proved after 150 years, stop throwing good money after bad!

    (This message approved by Ken Ham, who was there.)

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