Read our COVID-19 research and news.

NSF Says No to Congressman's Request for Reviewer Comments

Yes and no. Acting NSF Director Cora Marrett and Representative Lamar Smith look for middle ground in battle over grant selection.

(left) NSF; (right) U.S. House of Representatives

The National Science Foundation (NSF) today rebuffed a request from the chairman of the House of Representatives science committee to obtain reviewer comments on five social science research projects it is funding. The refusal is the latest twist in an increasingly edgy battle between the agency and Republicans in Congress over the agency's grants-making process and, in particular, its support for the social and behavioral sciences.

In a letter to Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), NSF defended the need to preserve the confidentiality of the peer-review process, according to sources with knowledge of the letter's contents. The letter explains how NSF's process works and that the independent reviewers recruited by the agency are promised anonymity in return for offering their candid comments on the quality of the proposal. After taking that hard line, however, acting NSF Director Cora Marrett proposed to brief the committee on how NSF selects from among some 40,000 research proposals that it receives each year. NSF also offered to provide general information on how the five grants satisfy NSF's mission to expand the frontiers of science.

In a statement, Smith tells ScienceInsider, "I am disappointed the NSF declined to provide Congress with additional information that would show why they are spending taxpayer dollars on specific research grants." A committee aide says that, earlier this year, NSF officials told the committee to submit a letter describing the information it was seeking and that today's NSF response "is at variance with that conversation."

At the same time, the aide sees NSF's letter as a temporary bump on the road to obtaining the reviewer comments. "We are working through the problem," says the aide. The next step, according to the staffer, is a meeting at which NSF officials will clarify "what they can provide us. … The ball is in NSF's court."

In March, Congress blocked NSF from funding any political science research this year unless it served to promote national security or economic development. Last month Smith drafted a bill that, in effect, would apply such a test to NSF's entire research portfolio.

On 25 April, Smith also wrote to Marrett asking for "access to the scientific/technical reviews and the Program Officers Review Analysis for the following [five] research projects that have been awarded NSF funding." Both his letter and his draft bill have inflamed the scientific community, which has urged him to rescind his request for information and abandon any legislation aimed at altering peer review at NSF. NSF's reply today is in response to Smith's letter, which requested the information by 10 May.

The committee is not interested in the identities of the reviewers, according to the aide, but rather in understanding how NSF justifies spending taxpayer dollars on these five specific grants. "I have worked with redacted statements before," the aide says. "It's such a small percentage of the overall content." The aide said a phrase from Marrett's letter, to wit, "I hope that there may be another way," was a sign of NSF's willingness to satisfy the chairman's request.

But that phrase may not mean the same thing to NSF officials. In their minds, confidentiality is a bedrock principle of the peer-review process that goes beyond the identity of reviewers. They believe that the comments themselves need to be protected in order for the system to work properly. Accordingly, the proper response to Smith's request is to explain how grant proposals are reviewed and how the best are funded without reference to specific reviewer comments. Any more details, they feel, would undermine the peer-review process.