A draft bill obtained by Science Magazine's blog ScienceInsider, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), would strip the peer-review requirement from the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant process, inserting a new set of funding criteria that is significantly less transparent and not inclusive of the opinions of independent experts.
Smith, sponsor of the highly controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that threatened to fundamentally change how the Internet works, has long been a critic of the NSF grant process. In furtherance of those views, Smith recently conducted a hearing supposedly meant to consider how the grant approval process might be improved, an early indication that such a bill was forthcoming.
Another indication came in February, when Smith published an editorial in Roll Call describing how his vision of science funding is based not upon the impacts new research may have on the scientific community, but whether that research will "create jobs." He went on to boast about how much of the House science committee's $39 billion in agency budgets gets dumped onto nuclear, fracking and "clean coal" projects.
Smith's "High Quality Research Act," embedded below, scraps the NSF's current peer-review process, which solicits the opinions of independent experts as to the "intellectual merit" and "broader impacts" of proposed research. In its stead, a new set of non-scientific standards for science funding are proposed.
Those proposed standards are three-fold, requiring the NSF's director to certify that all accepted research proposals are: "in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science; the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies." The draft bill also requires that the NSF director report to Congress how the same criteria can be applied to "other Federal science agencies."
In addition to the problem of stripping out a transparent, peer-review process, the new standards also discount the importance of research duplication, an important part of the scientific process. Without overlapping research, scientists cannot independently verify experimental results from other laboratories.
Science Magazine goes on to note that Smith also recently sent a letter to NSF director Cora Marrett requesting more information on five specific grants -- an action without precedent for a chairman of the House Science committee, particularly one who is personally lacking in scientific expertise. That letter reportedly drew a rebuke by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who wrote to Smith warning that interfering with the peer-review process threatens to "undo everything that has enabled NSF to contribute so profoundly to our national health, prosperity, and welfare."
The NSF's fiscal year 2014 budget proposal comes a grand total of $7.6 billion (PDF) -- or about 0.2 percent of the $3.77 trillion federal budget -- including $223 million for science, engineering and sustainability investment and education. Some of the 2012 funding highlights cited by the agency include helping address the nation's shortage of physics teachers and fostering the development of an "artificial leaf" that converts sunlight into portable hydrogen fuel.
Correction: A prior version of this story cited Science Magazine as Scientific American.