Texas congressman Lamar Smith, SOPA author and new chair of the US House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, wants to overhaul how the National Science Foundation funds research projects. According to Science, Smith's draft bill (called the "High Quality Research Act") would require that the director of the NSF certify prior to any funding award that the proposed project is "groundbreaking," of "the finest quality," does not duplicate any other federally-funded research, and will "advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and ... secure the national defense." It also requires that the National Science Board (including the president's council of science advisors) issue a report making recommendations on how these criteria could be applied to all other federal science funding.
"It's a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding."
This language may seem reasonable enough—it echoes the 1950 law that founded the NSF—but Science's Jeffrey Mervis writes that the bill "in effect, would replace peer review at the National Science Foundation." Currently, NSF research grants are approved by peer scientists judging proposals on just two criteria: their intellectual merit and their broader impact on the science community, as well as in the world at large.
Smith's proposal would alter the mission of the NSF, the principal funding source for pure scientific research in the US, by making each project fulfill the agency's aggregate goals. It opens up any project (and the director who approved it) to political scrutiny on that basis. Finally, the prohibition against duplicating current research makes the NSF pick winners and losers, rather than allowing multiple researchers to work toward the same goals with different degrees of success.
To see how these changes would affect federal science research, consider what's already happened during Smith's tenure as committee chair. Under a rider to a spending bill passed this year, the NSF is already prohibited from funding political science research unless it promotes economic development or national security. At hearings on the National Science budget two weeks ago, Smith questioned the acting NSF director and presidential science advisors about the merit of specific research projects, arguing that the NSF should require that funded research "benefit Americans." In response to a later question, presidential science advisor John Holdren countered that "it's a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding."
"Representative Smith's view of the world is flawed. He seems to believe that legislation of this sort is the answer to large, difficult problems."
Smith followed the hearings by asking acting NSF director Cora Marrett to defend five specific projects in detail. In response, the ranking Democrat on the science committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson, wrote a letter to Smith arguing that "the moment you compromise both the merit review process and the basic research mission of NSF is the moment you undo everything that has enabled NSF to contribute so profoundly to our national health, prosperity, and welfare."
On his blog, chemist Derek Lowe takes a more cynical view, writing that "people will rewrite their grant applications in order to make them look attractive under whatever rules apply—which, naturally, is how it's always worked." Pointing to Smith's work on SOPA, Lowe argues that "Rep. Smith's view of the world is flawed. He seems to believe that legislation of this sort is the answer to large, difficult problems."
Update: On Monday, President Barack Obama appeared to address this controversy directly in his remarks for the 150th anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences:
One of the things that I've tried to do over these last four years and will continue to do over the next four years is to make sure that we are promoting the integrity of our scientific process; 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.
And what’s true of all sciences is that in order for us to maintain our edge, we’ve got to protect our rigorous peer review system and ensure that we only fund proposals that promise the biggest bang for taxpayer dollars. 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. That’s what’s going to maintain our standards of scientific excellence for years to come.