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Update: Holdren Attacks House Bill, Defends NSF's Grant Selection Process

Speaking out. John Holdren (left) discusses pending legislation affecting NSF with AAAS President Phillip Sharp.

Robert Beets/AAAS

A congressional proposal to alter how the National Science Foundation (NSF) chooses research projects "would throw the basic research baby out with the bath water," says presidential science adviser John Holdren.

Speaking this morning at the annual Science and Technology Forum sponsored by AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider), Holdren sharply criticized legislation drafted by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Smith's bill would require NSF to promise that any research it funds "advance[s]" national health, prosperity, and security, "is ground breaking," and is not being supported by another federal agency. In a statement released 30 April, Smith said the bill "improves" on NSF's current process of peer review "by adding a layer of accountability" intended to "ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent on the highest-quality research."

Holdren said that Smith's bill, called the "High Quality Research Act," would wrongly inject lawmakers into a decision-making process that he described as "the gold standard" for the rest of the world. NSF now judges grant proposals on their "intellectual merit" and on the "broader impacts" of the research on society, and Holdren said that having politicians revise those criteria is fraught with danger.

"I have no objection to looking at the peer-review process to make sure that it is everything it can be," Holdren said in response to a question after his speech. "But I think … adding Congress as reviewers is a mistake. The basis of peer review is to employ experts in the relevant fields. Most members of Congress are not experts in the relevant fields. They are certainly experts in making decisions under uncertainty on complicated issues. But that does not qualify them to review research proposals in science."

Holdren said that the bill would also distort the process by which scientists seek to understand the world around them by requiring funding agencies to predict the fruits of their research well in advance. That approach violates the basic tenet of fundamental research, he said.

"It makes no sense at all to confine taxpayer support to those projects for which a likely direct contribution to the national interest can be identified in advance," Holdren told an audience of science lobbyists and policymakers that welcomed his strong defense of the research enterprise. "Unless, of course, the national interest is defined as expanding the boundaries of knowledge, which would be fine by me but which is not, I think, the intention of the members of Congress who have proposed this kind of language."

Holdren also said that the only way he would find the bill's language "palatable is if you define national interest to include expanding the frontiers of knowledge."

Holdren also commented on the interest that Smith and other congressional Republicans have shown in NSF's social science programs. Last week, Smith sent a letter to NSF asking the agency to explain how five recent grants in the social and behavioral sciences "adhere to NSF's 'intellectual merit' guideline." Most scientists see that inquiry as part of a broader attack by congressional Republicans on the social sciences. In March, Congress approved an amendment to the 2013 spending bill that would prevent NSF from funding any political science research unless the director certified that it addresses economic development or national security.

Holdren defended the value of social science research and criticized attempts to exclude it from NSF's portfolio. "Political science research helps us understand the actions of people around the world … and our own democracy," he said. "Economics research has clarified not only the economic basis for innovation but also its determinants. Social science research has helped us make hurricane warnings more effective, improved methods of instruction in the classroom and the workplace, and manage common resources more efficiently without centralized regulation."

The Obama administration has not taken an official position on the legislation, which has yet to be introduced. But Holdren's remarks suggest that the White House is watching its progress closely and that it thinks the stakes are high.

"The president made it very clear on Monday that he will do everything he can to protect that gold standard," Holdren said, referring to Obama's mention of peer review in a speech to the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. "Fiddling in any fundamental way with the model of judging research proposals being reviewed by scientific experts in the relevant fields would place at risk the world-leading quality of this nation's scientific and engineering enterprises."

Update, 2 May at 5:40 p.m.: Representative Smith released a statement this afternoon responding to Holdren's comments about his proposal. Smith said, in part, that "the draft bill does not make Congress 'reviewers' of NSF grant proposals. It is the responsibility of the professionals at the NSF to exercise their best judgment and ensure that only proposals that benefit the taxpayer get funded. It is Congress' job to encourage accountability and make sure hard-earned taxpayers' dollars are spent in ways that benefit the American people."

*Correction, 2 May at 2:30 p.m.: In a statement released on 30 April, not 1 May, Smith said the bill "improves" on NSF's current process of peer review.