Profs Worry About Politicizing NSF-Funded Research Grants

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The Association of American Universities has blasted an inquiry by the US House science committee concerning certain National Science Foundation grants.

Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Lamar Smith has thought some NSF grants to be a wasteful use of government spending for some time now, and has recently begun to ask the foundation for information pertaining to certain grants awarded through a peer review process in an effort to weed out those found to be “silly, obvious, or of low priority to society,” writes Science‘s Jeff Mervis.

Earlier this year, Smith pushed for the House to pass new restrictions pertaining to the funding of social science research.  His singling out of that discipline received wide criticism from academic researchers and the National Science Board.

Now, as the committee searches through individual NSF grant applications, tensions are rising again.

In a prepared statement on National Science Foundation grant inquiries, the AAU said that although they do agree that Congress needs to oversee agencies like the NSF, the issue at hand “is having a destructive effect on NSF and on the merit review process that is designed to fund the best research and to remove those decisions from the political process.”

“If the committee wishes to override the merit review process or if it wants NSF to stop funding research related to certain issues, its members owe it to the American public to say clearly what they are doing: substituting their judgment for the expertise of scientists on the vital question of what research the United States should support,” the statement continues. “The long history of success at NSF in making U.S. science the best in the world would be undermined by such a change.”

The AAU has several issues with Smith’s approach.  The inquiry places the confidentiality guaranteed to reviewers in jeopardy, which may in turn prevent top experts from participating.  NSF officials have repeatedly argued the point to Smith.

The AAU also holds concerns that such an inquiry will cause the NSF to feel it can only fund “safe research that does not attract political attention.”  The group feels scientists should be open to pursue unconventional research, “the kind that sometimes ends up winning Nobel Prizes and transforming science and society.”

In addition, AAU said that many of the grants Smith is asking about “are being investigated for no apparent reason other than the sound of their titles. Others are studies related to climate change or to the study of any countries other than the United States.”

Last year, Smith tried to push a bill that would “in effect politicize decisions made by the National Science Foundation.”  While that bill did not pass, similar measures are likely to be brought forth in the future.