The New NSF Criteria: Politics Over Science

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a government agency which allocates federal funding to scientific research. They have a budget of about 7 billion dollars to fund research and scholarships, which makes them (and their process) a pretty big deal. According to the NSF website,

…In addition to funding research in the traditional academic areas, the agency also supports “high risk, high pay off” ideas, novel collaborations and numerous projects that may seem like science fiction today, but which the public will take for granted tomorrow… We do this through grants and cooperative agreements to more than 2,000 colleges, universities, K-12 school systems, businesses, informal science organizations and other research organizations throughout the U.S.

Right now, they decide who gets funding based on a comprehensive merit review process, where every proposal is evaluated by a team of scientists (not government scientists, just regular old experts). It’s a nearly perfect example of peer review, and each project is evaluated only on the project’s merit, ignoring political factors and other distractions. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Lamar Smith, is trying to fix what isn’t broken.

Smith has proposed a bill (I’ll summarize the main points, but the actual text of the bill is here) that changes all that. It adds an extra step after the peer-review process, in which a politician essentially decides whether the experts’ opinions were valid and politically viable. This bill proposes 3 criteria that the NSF director must certify that each proposal follows. It must be discerned that each research proposal:

(1) is 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;

(2) is the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

(3) is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.

First things first, these are all decided by the director of the NSF, Cora Marrett. She isn’t a particle physicist or a neurochemist; she’s a career politician with a background in sociology. She is, with these new criteria, there to make sure that the proposals are politically useful. She’s not there to make sure they’re advancing science, she’s there to make sure they’re advancing the United States government, and that adds politics to a process that should be purely scientific.

It is my opinion, and, I think, that of many scientists, that the best science and discoveries happen when scientists are allowed to explore; but these new NSF grant criteria change the process in several ways. They make it so that a project must be close to some discovery, meaning either it’s not new and interesting or the grant isn’t needed as badly. They mean that a project must have predictable benefits for the country; it seems like we have forgotten such inventions as the light bulb, alternating current, and personal computers, which were initially thought to have no use. The use of a discovery is so often found later on in the process that it seems counter-intuitive to say that grants should only be given to projects that we already know will be useful to the nation. How can we know? If scientists can’t be sure ahead of time, how can politicians even claim to have a chance at guessing correctly whether a project ought to be funded? Remember, the NSF website’s own mission statement says that they support “high risk, high pay off” projects.

Here are some examples of discoveries funded by the NSF that, under the new criteria, seem like they’d be unlikely to get funding:

  1. The Darci Card, which gives several different options for a physically disabled person to communicate, existed before the NSF put funding into it, but it was large and unwieldy, and thus impractical. The NSF funded a project making the Darci Card actually the size of a playing card, as well as adding different types of functionalities (it can be used with breath control or a joystick or a light sensor), and making it cheaper to produce. Now, it’s practical to get a Darci Card to help people who otherwise would have difficulty communicating.
  2. Black holes. I’m serious. We weren’t sure if they existed, and then the NSF funded research on them, and now we know that there is a black hole at the center of our galaxy. This discovery isn’t particularly useful to the US or national defense, but it’s pretty important in our understanding of the universe. Under the new criteria, I don’t know that it’d pass – in fact, I don’t know how any sort of space research would line up.
  3. Anything that other agencies are already funding. This could be a problem, because many important discoveries (the hole in the ozone layer, new ways to make crops more abundant, new groundbreaking medications) are funded by the NSF along with other government agencies – as any practicing scientist will tell you, one grant is rarely enough to fund a whole project.

The NSF is an important scientific organization with a lot of power. This is a horrifying encroachment of politics into what ought to be a haven of science. Maybe we do need more safeguards to make sure that the NSF doesn’t become corrupt, but those safeguards shouldn’t destroy the whole process; they shouldn’t allow politicians to make decisions in areas where they have no expertise. Has adding politics ever been an acceptable way to safeguard science? I’m gonna go ahead and say no.

If the advance of science in this country is an issue that you care about as much as I do, give some thought to signing this petition demanding that the bill be stopped:  http://act.watchdog.net/petitions/2901?share_ref=zAEHEO0kJ3M

This entry was perhaps a bit more ranty than usual, but it’s just because this bill scares me. The scariest part about it is that Smith is hoping to have similar criteria put in place for more government agencies, injecting politics where they don’t belong and hindering progress. It scares me, as a person interested in the progress of science and society, that a biased review process like this could become standard.

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