29 April 2013

Changing the players, or changing the goals?

A story from Science is making the round on the social media via my fellow scientists. It’s about draft legislation led by Lamar Smith that would affect the National Science Foundation. It starts with a dramatic lede:

The new chair of the House of Representatives science committee has drafted a bill that, in effect, would replace peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a set of funding criteria chosen by Congress.

The suggestion that scientists would not be picking what science to fund is a surefire way to get the hounds of academic braying like they’re on the scent of blood. Peer review is the defining characteristic of serious academic scholarship. There is no faster way to lose credibility than to mess with peer review. (Case in point: CPRIT in Texas.)

Let’s look past the first sentence to see what is being suggested.

(T)he draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s website, 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.”

I don’t see that as evidence of getting rid of peer review. It changes what peer reviewers are supposed to be looking for, but there’s certainly no indication that scientists won’t be picking the winners and losers. I was not around when NSF implemented the “broader impacts” criteria, but I don’t recall anyone ever saying that they were subverting peer review. Confusing, maybe. Not taking seriously, perhaps. But never “not peer reviewed.”

Honestly, I could get behind criterion #3. Criteria #1 and #2 are problematic, because they encourage short term thinking. Science is not about turning a next quarter profit, which is where these sorts of directives lead you.

A bigger problem with this proposal is that it encourages micromanagement. This is also why I don’t think it has much of a future. There is just too much work for politicans and their staffers to be making these kinds of decisions on a routine bases. Currently, the American federal funding agencies are able to get a lot of value for money because scientists volunteer to do peer review, because they believe in its importance. If politicians started trying to pick what to fund, maybe they’d learn that the “lazy professor” meme is a myth.

Should politicians have a say in what science gets funded? Well, that’s a motto point. They always have. They always will. NASA was a political creation. So was the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. There are pros and cons to politicians getting involved in funding decisions.

Additional: One possible downside to criterion #3 is that it could be used against research that involves replication. Fair concern, especially given that replication has a hard enough time being published. There is a reasonable discussion to be had about where to draw the line between replication and duplication (i.e., funding five different major labs all trying to track down the same gene in the same model organism).

Additional, 1 May 2013: Slate has a good background piece on this. It highlights something I sort of allude to above: the specific proposals are not as important as the short-term thinking and disdain for research.

(I)t’s difficult for (social scientists) to justify their own funding in a time of severe government cutbacks. ... The new attempts to claw away at research have gone on for months, and the academics haven’t put up a compelling defense beyond one event on the Hill and the yeoman blogging of some professors like John Sides. “Going forward,” Sides wrote after Coburn’s win, “a coordinated lobbying effort is needed not only to roll back the restrictions on political science but to defend the NSF’s core mission as a promoter of scientific research in the public good, broadly defined.”

So far that lobbying effort doesn’t exist. Instead, Republicans are able to challenge NSF funding in order to pursue long-term political goals without too many people noticing.

External links

U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants
Congress tries to reset science grants, wants every one to be “groundbreaking”
Bad laws for science and all growing things

Picture from here.

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