The new push by the House of Representatives science committee to change the grant-making process at the National Science Foundation (NSF) flows from members' unhappiness over a handful of grants awarded in the social sciences. And the goal is to screen out "questionable" grants.
That explanation comes from a committee aide who was authorized to discuss the draft bill after Science acceded to his request for anonymity. An article in the 10 May issue of Science describes the origins of the controversy regarding the draft written by the chair of the committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX). It also examines his 25 April letter to NSF asking for more information about five recent grants and the current state of play on the issue.
In the 3 May interview, the aide described the intent behind the bill, entitled, "The High Quality Research Act." The aide also discussed its relationship to a broader legislative exercise, called reauthorization, of the 2010 America COMPETES Act, which sets policy and funding levels for NSF and several other federal research agencies. The scientific community has sharply criticized the legislation and is pushing for major revisions.
Here are excerpts from the interview.
Q: What's broken about peer review at NSF that the proposed legislation is trying to fix?
Aide: The concern is with a certain number of specific NSF grants that were awarded that have raised questions in the minds of policymakers about why these projects are being funded. That's not the peer-review system itself, and the intent of the legislation is not to change the peer-review system. It is the next step after, which is making the awards. It is an additional layer of accountability.
Q: What do you mean by the step after peer review?
A: It's not the review system. I realize there are 11,000 awards made each year. But some of them are questionable, and the chairman has asked about them at the hearing. It goes to NSF's credibility on some of those grants.
The reason we wanted to have this discussion is that we wanted to work on the policy issue in advance of tackling the COMPETES reauthorization. We all knew this would be a thorny policy discussion point, and we wanted to work out the language. It was a first draft that we were sharing with our Democratic colleagues, and we told them we wanted to work out the language.
Q: Is this part of a larger NSF reauthorization, or a stand-alone bill?
A: We wanted to air out the policy in a stand-alone bill that could be incorporated later into an NSF reauthorization bill that would be part of COMPETES. We knew that this would be a policy discussion, to go along with the funding language in a reauthorization.
Q: NSF now makes awards based on peer review. What does the country gain from this additional step?
A: The intent is to have accountability. "You've been granted American tax dollars. How did you justify it?
We're looking to find a simple way to implement it. We tried to make it a thoughtful step. The concern was, "How did these grants get through? How does it benefit the American taxpayer who is financing it?"
Q: So the concern was that NSF wasn't already doing this?
A: It is our concern that such a step of thoughtfulness and accountability for the American taxpayer was not being done. That's why we're asking for it. I'm not saying that it wasn't being done. But we didn't see it.
Q: In terms of the five grants, what do you want to learn from the reviewers' comments?
A: That's separate from the legislation. It grew out of an oversight question during the hearing: "Could you show us the justification for that grant?"
Q: There are confidentiality issues involved in protecting the names of the reviewers.
A: And that's fine. We don't want the names of the reviewers. We just want the same information that is provided to the foundation's Committee of Visitors. There's no intent to know who said what. I saw an article in which someone said it would have a chilling effect on people. That is not our intent. It's merely, "How do you justify this award?"
Q: Why those five?
A: They had come up during staff reviews of some grants and raised questions about how is this in the national interest, such as a study of dairy production in China.
Q: Do you think peer review is working? Do you have any concerns about how that process is working?
A: I think it's more about a few bad apples affecting the impression of the overall good work at NSF. And that is the concern.
Q: The community is asking why you think they are questionable, and is Congress substituting its judgment for the judgment of peer reviewers?
A: The peer-review process occurs before things are awarded. This is after the peer-review process. There is a step between peer review and the awards being made, and somewhere in there, Congress is saying, "We think an additional step is needed to solve the problem of so many questionable grants being awarded." It is the responsibility of Congress to ask how our money is being spent.