House Science Committee Chairman and the NSF at Odds

Over the last two months, Chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee Lamar Smith (R-TX) has been showing an extreme interest in the National Science Foundation’s grants.  It started with leaked draft legislation (The High Quality Research Act) reauthorizing the NSF that would require the NSF to certify in writing that each grant that it awards is in the economic or national security interest of the country.  This legislation was followed by an April 25 letter from Smith to Acting NSF Director Cora Marrett asking for the notes from peer review and from the program officers for five specific grants that the Committee thinks are not in the interest of US taxpayers. 

The proposed legislation and the inquiry into the grants have alarmed the science community about Chairman Smith’s intent. Past NSF Directors, dating back to 1985, sent the Chairman a letter asking him to rescind the letter, as did several past Assistant Directors.  Ranking member of the committee Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)  also sent Smith a letter opposing his request.

Why the fuss?  Members of the science community are very concerned that the inquiry and the legislation will lead to the politicization of science and an infringement on the peer review system that has worked well for decades and made the US the model for other countries. Reviewers make comments assuming they will be anonymous.  Will scientists agree to serve as reviewers if that confidentiality cannot be assured? Who better to judge the merit of a project than other experts in the field?  According to an interview with a House Science and Technology committee aide that appeared on the AAAS blog, ScienceInsider on May 9, Chairman Smith contends that the problem is not the scientific review, but whether those projects are vetted by NSF to see if they are an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money.

In a surprising development, Marrett sent her response to Smith’s request this week, and let him know that she was not going to divulge the information he requested.  She said that she would be happy to discuss the peer review process, how grants are selected, and how the five Smith has expressed a specific interest in are in line with the NSF’s mission.

It is unclear what will happen next.  Stay tuned!

 

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