Obama Promises to Protect Peer Review in Salute to NAS

Science fan. President Barack Obama thanks the U.S. National Academy of Sciences for 150 years of service.

David Malakoff/Science

President Barack Obama faces plenty of critics in Washington these days. But he found an appreciative audience today at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), where he delivered a speech celebrating the august body's 150th anniversary. In addition to touting his administration's support for research, Obama took an oblique swipe at political adversaries in Congress who want to require the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other funding agencies to adopt new grant funding criteria.

"[W]e've got to protect our rigorous peer review system and ensure that we only fund proposals that promise the biggest bang for taxpayer dollars," Obama said. "And I will keep working to make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process."

The remarks appeared to address two legislative initiatives much on the minds of the audience. In one, first reported yesterday by ScienceInsider, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the head of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is drafting legislation that would require NSF to certify that research the agency funds meets three new criteria. It demands that the work advance the "national health, prosperity, or welfare" of the United States, "is groundbreaking," and "is not duplicative" of studies funded by another federal agency.

The other is a temporary prohibition, sponsored by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and approved by Congress last month, against NSF's funding any political science research unless the director certifies that the research addresses economic or national security interests. Both lawmakers say that their efforts are intended to ensure the best use of taxpayer dollars, but critics charge that they are trying to politicize the peer-review process.

Obama also gave a shout-out to the social sciences, which have borne the brunt of recent congressional complaints. "[O]ne of the things that I've tried to do over these last 4 years and will continue to do over the next 4 years is to make sure that we are promoting the integrity of our scientific process," he said. "That not just in the physical and life sciences, but also in fields like psychology and anthropology and economics and political science—all of which are sciences because scholars develop and test hypotheses and subject them to peer review—but in all the sciences, we've got to make sure that we are supporting the idea that they're not subject to politics, that they're not skewed by an agenda, that, as I said before, we make sure that we go where the evidence leads us. And that's why we've got to keep investing in these sciences."

Politics of the day aside, Obama spent much of his speech extolling NAS for its role in advising the government on tricky technical issues. "For 150 years, you've strived to answer big questions, solve tough problems, not for yourselves but for the benefit of the nation," he told a crowd packed with many of the most prominent members of the country's scientific establishment. "And that legacy has endured from the Academy's founding days."

"[M]ore important than any single study or report, the members of this institution embody what is so necessary for us to continue our scientific advance and to maintain our cutting-edge, and that's restless curiosity and boundless hope, but also a fidelity to facts and truth, and a willingness to follow where the evidence leads," he said.

Obama also drew a number of laughs, especially when he noted that members of academy panels work for free. "[P]art of what's made the Academy so effective is that all the scientists elected to your elite ranks are volunteers," he said. "Which is fortunate because we have no money anyway."

Today's speech was Obama's second at the NAS; he also addressed the group in 2009. NAS officials noted that President John F. Kennedy marked NAS's 100th anniversary with a speech in 1963.