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Bill Revising Federal Grants Process Wouldn’t Change Practices at NIH and NSF, Says Sponsor

Chill out.

The author of legislation that would alter how federal agencies manage competitive grants says his bill isn’t aimed at research agencies and “would not change” how those agencies do their jobs. He also said he plans to fix several provisions that are causing the most heartburn among academics and their institutions.

Last week, Representative James Lankford (R-OK) introduced the Grant Reform and New Transparency (GRANT) Act (H.R. 3316). The bill would force government granting agencies to, among other requirements, post funded applications on the Web, provide lists of reviewers, and enable unsuccessful applicants to request a “debriefing” from agency officials. Lankford says the legislation, a slightly revised version of something he proposed in 2011, is intended to level the playing field for grant applicants and give those who aren’t funded “the opportunity to learn from the experience.”

Some of those provisions worry academic groups, who fear they would strip away the anonymity of reviewers or result in the disclosure of sensitive and proprietary information. But in an interview yesterday with ScienceInsider, Lankford said that’s not his intent. He said that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) “does a great job” and that his bill would affect only those agencies—he mentioned the departments of Education, Justice, and Commerce—“that do not have a transparent process in place.” And he said the legislation is still a work in progress.

Lankford’s bill appears to be on a legislative fast track. Introduced on 23 October, the bill was approved Tuesday by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives along strict party lines and could come before the entire body later this fall.

But Lankford says he is still tinkering with provisions that Democrats on the committee want to change. “As the bill stands now,” he told ScienceInsider yesterday, “it should not go to the floor” until those differences are worked out. An earlier version of his bill also cleared the committee in November 2011, but it never came up for a vote by the full House.

Academic lobbyists say that they don’t object to the bill’s overall intent. “We appreciate the need for appropriate transparency to help ensure that taxpayers and policymakers have the necessary information and assurances that federal grant monies are well-managed and executed as intended,” a coalition of research universities wrote Lankford and committee Chairman Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) in 2011. Their fight, then and now, is over how much and what type of information should be made public.

Posting proposals

One major bone of contention is a provision that would require agencies to put the contents of every funded proposal on a government-wide website. “Posting full grant applications would make such ideas and preliminary results available to anyone, domestic and foreign, … thus undermining the hard work and intellectual capital the applicant and institution have already invested in the project,” notes the coalition’s 2011 letter. The bill allows agencies to delay such posting for up to 60 days.

At Tuesday’s markup of the bill, Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA) offered an amendment in which posting an abstract of the proposal, instead of the full text, would be the default option. The public would still have the right to request entire copies of winning proposals through a process governed by an existing sunshine law known as the Freedom of Information Act. The amendment was rejected along party lines by a vote of 19 to 15.

However, Lankford told ScienceInsider that he thinks Connolly’s idea makes sense for research agencies such as NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF). “It will probably end up that way,” Lankford says. “We’re working with Mr. Connolly to be able to have that option for a science project. Why wouldn’t you do that?”

The reason he has insisted on posting the full proposal, Lankford says, is because the majority of grants don’t contain such sensitive information. “When you’re talking about a grant proposal for smart boards in the classroom, that’s not exactly intellectual property,” he explains.

Identifying reviewers

The scientific community also objects to language that it fears could make it possible to identify individual reviewers. The bill language is ambiguous, calling for disclosure of “[t]he employer, and either the name and title or a unique identifier, of each individual who served as a peer reviewer for the grant program” during the previous 6 months. During the markup, Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI) spoke in favor of using only the “unique identifier,” but the Republican majority dismissed the idea.

However, Lankford says that Pocan’s suggestion is still on the table, and that, in fact, he expects research agencies to take that approach if the bill becomes law. “I can’t imagine that, among the science agencies, they would use anything except a unique identifier,” Lankford told ScienceInsider. “They are not going to use names because it’s a relatively small number of people involved. So they will use identifiers to protect who those individuals are.” He says that his goal is to make sure that agencies “don’t have the same people doing the reviewing year after year.”

Getting a debriefing

The bill also gives losing applicants the chance to learn why their proposal was rejected. Agency officials have expressed concern over the additional time and resources that might be needed to conduct such “debriefings.” But again, Lankford says that he wasn’t thinking about research agencies when he inserted the provision.

“I think that what NIH and NSF do now would suffice,” he told ScienceInsider. “But a fire department or a rural school that applies for a grant doesn’t have a professional grants writer. They just want to see a sample of what a winning grant looks like, and how they can avoid losing again if they apply next year.”

Academic leaders believe that Lankford’s bill is redundant—as one put it, “it is an example of over-compliance.” They say that federal science agencies already go to great lengths to make their peer-review system transparent, to attract fresh reviewers, and to provide plenty of feedback to those whose proposals are not funded.

During the interview, Lankford repeatedly praised how NIH and NSF now operate and said the bill would not require them to revise their policies and procedures significantly. “Other than unique identifiers, I can’t think of anything that NIH would have to do differently,” he noted.

Despite his admiration for the status quo at many science agencies, Lankford thinks his bill sends an important message about how the federal government should operate. “There is no entitlement when it comes to a federal grant,” he says. “They are funded with taxpayer dollars, and they should be handled in the most open and transparent way possible.”