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In a turnabout, key congressional critic backs NSF peer review
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In a turnabout, key congressional critic backs NSF peer review

And Vannevar Bush said, let there be peer review. And Lamar Smith saw the peer review, that it was good.

A political dispute involving the National Science Foundation (NSF) that has taken on near-biblical importance within the scientific community may be inching closer to resolution. A new statement from Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chair of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives that oversees NSF, appears to be a significant softening of his long-standing criticism of NSF’s grantsmaking process. And although a different congressional panel is expected to register the same complaint against the agency at a hearing next week, the shift in the political landscape is good news for U.S. scientists.

For 2 years, Smith has been feuding with NSF, asserting that the $7.3 billion agency is funding research that fails to address important scientific questions or is otherwise a waste of tax dollars. He’s also sent committee staffers to NSF headquarters to review dozens of grants already parceled out. Smith has blamed the problem on NSF’s vaunted peer-review system, and last year he introduced a bill that he says would improve NSF’s track record by requiring agency officials to certify that every award is funding research “that is in the national interest.”

Many scientists regard the seemingly innocuous language as a veiled attack on the social sciences, which Smith and other Republicans have repeatedly labeled as less important than work in the computational and physical sciences, biology, and engineering. And indeed, more than half of the awards that Smith has held up to ridicule are funded by NSF’s social and behavioral sciences directorate, a program that represents less than 5% of NSF’s research portfolio.

But yesterday Smith took a small but important step away from the brink by blessing NSF’s current system for selecting what to fund. It came in response to a question from ScienceInsider about the results of his review of some 60 NSF grants, some dating back a decade. “The Committee has learned a lot about the merit selection process, but nothing to suggest it is not the best available means for making very difficult, complex decisions,” Smith told ScienceInsider in an e-mail.

That short, understated reply represents a major toning down of previous rhetoric. In January, for example, Smith wrote an op-ed for Politico that lashed out at those who have criticized his inquiry into NSF’s merit review system. Teaming up with Senator Rand Paul (R–KY), the legislators wrote that “[u]nfortunately, the academic community and the media vilify any attempt by Congress to better understand the grant-award process, labeling it political interference and an attack on science. … But scrutinizing science funding isn’t the same as attacking science.”

His support for NSF peer review comes 2 weeks after Smith proclaimed that he and NSF were already on the same page. Hours after NSF Director France Córdova testified before the science committee on the agency’s proposed budget for 2016, the committee issued a press release headlined “Smith, NSF Director Córdova Agree to Work Together on ‘National Interest’ Criteria for Taxpayer-Funded Research.”

The press release was based on an exchange between Smith and Córdova during the 26 February hearing. In her opening statement, Córdova described the agency’s progress on an initiative begun in December 2013 “to strengthen our efforts in transparency and accountability around the merit review process.” In follow-up questions, Smith asked Córdova if those changes dovetailed with his 2014 legislation, the FIRST (Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology) Act. Córdova said the bill language “is very compatible with the new NSF internal guidelines and the mission statement of NSF.”

Seeing an opening, Smith then asked, “So I assume you support the language in the FIRST Act that deals with that subject?” Despite the scientific community’s harsh criticism of the bill, which died when the previous Congress adjourned, Córdova didn’t hedge. “Yes, we do,” she said.

A week later, in a memo to NSF’s 1350 staffers that summarizes the current state of play, Córdova was a bit more circumspect in describing her position. For starters, the memo doesn’t mention the FIRST Act. Córdova instead cites another portion of her answer to Smith’s line of questioning. “I responded that NSF leadership has consistently emphasized the importance of the national interest,” she writes, “as stated in our mission set forth in the National Science Foundation Act of 1950: ‘To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense.’ ”

In the memo, Córdova also points to a small victory in the agency’s ongoing battle with the committee over the terms under which its grantsmaking records can be reviewed. The ground rules require science committee aides to read the documents in a safeguarded room at NSF headquarters, with the names of the reviewers redacted and without the ability to make photocopies.

The process is a sore point with Smith. In his latest request to NSF on 10 February, for example, Smith notes that NSF “has not complied” fully with his request to turn over the documents and laments his “limited access” to them.

Some NSF staffers have also bristled at the inspections, which they see as a breach of NSF’s promise to the community to preserve the privacy of the merit review system. In an apparent attempt to rally her troops, Córdova reminds NSF staffers that “the Chairman of the Committee had requested that these documents be delivered to the Committee,” a process that she terms “a compromise” between the two sides. “Historically,” the memo points out, “such accommodation between executive and legislative branches of government has reduced escalation and generally satisfied the major concerns of both branches.”

That remains to be seen. Speaking earlier this week at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), Córdova indicated that she thinks NSF’s critics are on shaky ground but that she nevertheless expects the fight to continue. “I think Congress has taken great pains to support it,” she told her COSSA audience. “But there’s a disconnect when you criticize the results.”

Smith, for his part, is still unhappy with NSF’s ground rules for access to its grantsmaking files. “As NSF proceeds with implementation of its new transparency policies, the Committee may choose to revisit oversight terms and conditions for future access to grant files,” Smith wrote in yesterday’s e-mail to ScienceInsider. “The redaction of reviewers’ names is appropriate. However, the law is clear that no federal agency can impose unilateral restrictions on congressional access to information. This Committee’s Constitutional responsibility to oversee how $7 billion in taxpayer dollars are spent should not be hindered by unlawful restrictions.”

Next week, the spotlight will be on another congressional committee. On Tuesday, Córdova goes before the House spending panel that funds NSF and several other science agencies, where the struggle over NSF’s funding choices is likely to resume. Its new chair, Representative John Culberson (R–TX), has both promised to make sure NASA and NSF “are fully funded … and free of politics” and warned that NSF should “focus more on the pure sciences … and avoid pursuing obscure and obtuse social science research.”

Córdova will need to find a way to turn that double-edged—many would say contradictory—message to NSF’s advantage. How well she succeeds could determine not only NSF’s overall budget for 2016, but also whether the agency’s social science portfolio remains intact.