June 2013

Peer review at the National Science Foundation under threat

Completing a grant application is a momentous event full of relief and apprehension, the latter of which is provoked by the next step of the process — peer review. What will a committee of scientific experts think about the work proposed in your application? How will your application rate relative to other applications? Will the application score well enough to be funded and support you and your lab?

ASBMB responds

Read the ASBMB Office of Public Affairs’ letter to U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, about peer review at the National Science Foundation.

Draft legislation circulating in the U.S. House could add another question to the mix: Will federal politicians find my work of high enough quality and important enough to society to warrant funding? Written by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, a draft bill would require the National Science Foundation director to certify that all grants awarded by the agency (1) have a foreseeable benefit to society, (2) solve important societal problems and (3) are not duplicative of other research. To be clear, this is a draft bill that has not yet been introduced to the full House and is not formally under consideration by the SST committee.
While it is doubtful this draft bill will become law, the thought processes behind it are concerning. The goal of scientific research is to broaden human knowledge, which requires discovering something previously unknown. Knowing the outcome and application of research before it has been conducted is impossible, in violation of the first two tenets of Smith’s draft legislation. In fact, the benefits of scientific research may be realized only years or decades after it is conducted. This does not mean the research is unimportant or without benefit to society but merely that it is a step on an unknowable path toward discovery.
Peer review effectively provides a buffer against the politicization of scientific research by ensuring only the most scientifically meritorious grant proposals are funded. Smith’s draft bill would implement an evaluation subsequent to peer review that would allow those outside the peer review process to disqualify grant applications based on nonexperts’ opinions. At that point, the NSF would not be funding the highest-quality research but rather the highest-quality research that could survive political scrutiny. This could significantly slow or stop entire fields of research simply based on what Congress, not scientists, believes are important scientific questions.
This latest attack on peer-reviewed science won’t be the last. We at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology are particularly concerned about this proposal and the effect it would have on science funding, and we are working with our partners in Washington to do everything within our power to stop this proposal from becoming a bill, much less a law. That said, the community should not be surprised by this effort; nor should we be surprised by similar efforts that are sure to be on the horizon. As the scientific community makes passionate pleas to Congress for increases in funding in an environment where increases are less and less politically obtainable, increasing questions and criticism of the types of research that are funded should be expected. We must be vigilant and more vocal in defending our work and explaining the importance of our research to the public. If we are not, the questions that surround momentous events like submitting a grant application will be more about political perception than scientific excellence.

Photo of Chris PickettChris Pickett (cpickett@asbmb.org) is the science policy fellow at the ASBMB. Follow his postings on the ASBMB Policy Blotter.

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