A few months ago, Hank and Lee shared some thoughts about the discussion surrounding the "High Quality Research Act," a bill drafted by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the current head of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. The bill would require the NSF director to pledge that funded projects are "high-quality" and benefit the American people, and it seems to be grounded in Smith's concern that the NSF is funding "questionable" projects. Shortly before a draft of the HQRA leaked, Smith had called Presidential science advisor John Holdren and acting NSF Director Cora Marrett before Congress to justify the NSF's spending decisions.
Smith's repeated statement that he wanted to "improve" on the NSF's grant-awarding process raised hackles in the scientific community. Currently, the NSF relies on reports from referees—i.e., peer review—to choose which applications will be funded. What many observers found really alarming was the letter Smith wrote to Marrett, requesting copies of the referee reports related to five NSF grants that he felt were suspicious, all in the social sciences.
I recently began a project on the development of peer review in the twentieth century, so I am always interested when peer review pops up in the news. But the main reason the HQRA debate piqued my interest is that it's almost identical to a controversy about NSF funding from 1975.
See if this sounds familiar. In 1975, Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) expressed concern about whether NSF spending was benefitting the American public. Proxmire named five NSF-funded grants that he said were "at best, of nominal value to the American taxpayer who foots the bill." He then called NSF director H. Guyford Stever before the Senate to defend the NSF's spending decisions.
Unlike Smith, whose proposals don't seem to have attracted much support, Proxmire found Congressional allies in Rep. John Conlan (R-AZ) and Rep. Robert Bauman (R-MD). Bauman proposed that the NSF should submit all grants for Congressional approval before promising any funding. Conlan, like Proxmire, believed that the NSF's grants were of minimal benefit to most Americans and that they were disproportionately awarded to elite private universities in the Northeast. Conlan quickly became one of the NSF's harshest critics.
Here's where things get interesting. One of the criticisms Conlan lobbed at the NSF was that the organization was ignoring referee opinions when it made funding decisions. In other words, Conlan set Congress forth as the defender of peer review.
|Inside the review process (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
But by the 1970s, the attitude towards peer review in the United States had changed. Peer review was increasingly being linked with scientific legitimacy. (Figuring out how and why this happened is the goal of my new project.) The idea that NSF directors might award a grant to a proposal with lukewarm referee reports was less acceptable to the scientific community—and to the public. NSF officials responded to the 1975 criticisms by placing more responsibility for decision-making on referee reports. A new audit office at the NSF was created to ensure that directors placed appropriate weight on positive and negative reports.
Director Stever then used the peer review reforms to justify rejecting Proxmire, Bauman, and Conlan's other proposals. Stever and other NSF officials argued that having proposals reviewed by experts was the best and only way to decide which projects should be funded. No further scrutiny was needed to guarantee that good science was funded and poor science was not, especially scrutiny from non-expert reviewers such as members of Congress.
The strategy was successful; the suggestion of Congressional review for NSF grants was dropped. Essentially, the NSF and Congress agreed to place their trust in peer review in order to determine how the NSF's chunk of taxpayer dollars would be spent.
|http://strange-matter.net/screen_res/nz060.jpg (with permission)
In other words, Smith's office seems to think that NSF reviewers can't be trusted to approve good projects and reject inadequate ones. An extra step is needed to make sure nothing "questionable" receives funding.
Does the HQRA signal that people outside the academy are losing their trust in scientific peer review? Actually, I think it's just the opposite. The speed with which the HQRA appears to have died on the vine suggests that public faith in peer review is still quite robust. Notably, in the interview I linked above, the Science Committee aide went out of his way to convince the reporter that the HQRA was not interfering with peer review itself. No one seems to think that attacking peer review is going to be a winning strategy.
In fact, trust in peer review might just be stronger outside the academy than within it at the moment. Scholars in many fields have written volumes on whether peer review actually works the way we want it to. I will be interested to see if the furor surrounding the HQRA dampens these kinds of critiques. When "trust in peer review!" has been such an effective rallying cry for the pro-NSF crowd, will scientists and other scholars want to criticize their best defense against Congressional interference?