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Second Opinion

Learn about policy issues important to medical schools and teaching hospitals, with Executive Vice President Atul Grover, M.D., Ph.D.

Washington Highlights

OSTP Director Defends Social Science Research, Peer Review

May 3, 2013—Appearing at a May 2 policy conference at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, John Holdren, Ph.D., director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), addressed recent efforts by members of Congress to prohibit the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding certain areas of research or to add additional layers of review of such projects. He also emphasized the administration’s support for peer review.

“Members of Congress have recently suggested, variously, either that social sciences are not really science and should not be supported by the tax-payers at all; or that research in political science, at least, should only be supported if the NSF will certify to Congress, for each grant, that the research will advance either the economy or national security (a provision now actually embodied in law in the most recent Continuing Resolution governing spending for the remained of FY13); or that all tax-payer funded research should have to pass the test of offering a predictable benefit for some national interest,” Dr. Holdren noted.

Emphasizing that the social and behavioral sciences are sciences and that much of this work “is aimed at having or ends up having … practical applications to society’s direct benefit,” he continued, “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.”

Saying that the competitive, peer-reviewed grant process used by NSF, the National Institutes of Health, and much of the rest of the government’s research and development funding has made it “the gold standard, recognized around the world,” Dr. Holdren continued, “Of course, this does not mean that the way this peer-review process is implemented in different agencies shouldn’t itself be reviewed from time to time to make sure it is as good as it can be. But fiddling in any fundamental way with the model of judging research proposals via review by scientific experts in relevant fields would place at risk the world-leading quality of this Nation’s scientific and engineering enterprises.”

Dr. Holdren was responding to draft legislation circulated by House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to require the NSF director to certify that research projects would benefit the national interest or the economy to be funded.

Chairman Smith questioned Dr. Holdren at an April 17 Science Committee hearing about taxpayer support for social sciences and political science studies at NSF and how to better prioritize federal research spending. Dr. Holdren cautioned against congressional micromanagement of how federal agencies award research grants.

Following the hearing, on April 25 Chairman Smith wrote acting NSF Director Cora Marrett, Ph.D., asking for “access to the scientific/technical reviews and the Program Officers Review Analysis” for five specific research projects NSF had funded. “Based on my review of NSF-funded studies, I have concerns regarding some grants approved by the Foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF’s ‘intellectual merit’ guideline,” the chairman wrote.

Chairman Smith’s letter drew a strongly worded rebuke from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the ranking member on the House Science Committee. In an April 26 letter to the chairman, Rep. Johnson wrote, “[Y]our letter marks the beginning of an investigative effort, the implications of which are profound. This marks the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely viewed as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world.”

“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,” the letter continued. “An unavoidable consequence would also be a fundamental attack on our universities as bastions of inquiry and discovery.”

Speaking April 29 at the National Academy of Sciences, President Obama pledged to protect the peer review process, saying, “I will keep working to make sure 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.”

Chairman Smith released a statement April 30 in response to what he characterized as “misinformation” regarding his draft legislation. “It is the job of Congress and the NSF to make sure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly,” Chairman Smith said. “The draft bill maintains the current peer review process and improves on it by adding a layer of accountability. The intent of the draft legislation is to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent on the highest-quality research possible.”

Contact:

Dave Moore
Senior Director, Government Relations
Telephone: 202-828-0559
Email: dbmoore@aamc.org

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Jason Kleinman
Sr. Legislative Analyst, Govt. Relations
Telephone: 202-903-0806
Email: jkleinman@aamc.org