Peer Review and Congressional Oversight – An Invited Post
[The following is an invited post by Megan Tracy.]
About two weeks ago, I received an email from one of the editors of the Science Insider blog. He began: “You’ve probably heard that your NSF grant to study the [Chinese] melamine poisoning scandal was targeted at two House science committee hearings yesterday.” I hadn’t heard and this is the first time my research has become the target of what feels like the never-ending rounds of partisan politics. The original critique of my project and the others being targeted is that they fail to directly benefit the American people. I was, quite frankly, rather surprised to be included as my project examines China’s evolving food regulatory system and has direct relevance for America’s food safety and security. The targeting of particular awards are not (and never are) about their specific content or quality but rather involve broader issues including the allocation of funding, peer review and congressional oversight. (It can, however, certainly feel direct especially when the intellectual merit of your specific grant is questioned and copies of the peer reviews and the program officer’s evaluations are requested in a letter written by the committee’s chairman. As a recent Slate article notes, these attacks appear to be winning. this year, for example, the Coburn amendment successfully limits NSF funding in political science to those that promote national security or the economic interests of the US. The same article argues that with a few exceptions, the social sciences have not been pushing back and are failing to present arguments with much traction in today’s economic and political climate.
The history of selecting grants for congressional censure by both parties is long, including the Golden Fleece awards handed out by former Senator Proxmire. Grants, I’m told, are selected largely by their titles and broadly critiqued for being a waste of taxpayer money. This year, the argument has focused on the peer review process itself with Rep. Lamar Smith, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology drafting new legislation, the “High Quality Research Act” that he claims will “[maintain] the current peer review process and [improve] on it by adding a layer of accountability." The arguments are familiar as are the reactions on both sides of the political fence. Many news websites and blogs together with the comments posted to them summarize these arguments so I’ll only note the general contours here. One side argues that science funded by US taxpayers should not only be held accountable to the public but also be directly in the American public interest. How this will be done in practice is not yet clearly laid out in the draft bill (which can be seen here). The defense of peer review is vociferous–notably by another committee member, Eddie Bernice Johnson, but also in the comments on websites dedicated to science-related issues, higher education and the so-called liberal media. Even President Obama has weighed in. Critics of Smith’s draft legislation point out that the peer review process already pulls together experts to evaluate one another on scientific merit and potential value to society (broadly construed) rather than on the politics of the moment. The peer review process at NSF meets these goals with the requirement that research must meet both intellectual merit and broader impacts in order to be funded see discussion here. These basic requirements seek to ensure that promising scientific research with both immediate, practical benefits as well as work with long-term and unpredictable pay-offs receive funding.
Is anthropology paying attention? I certainly hope so. Out of the five grants targeted in Smith’s letter, two were funded primarily by NSF’s Cultural Anthropology program and a third received a small amount of support. As we all know, funding is tight and few avenues are available to conduct long-term research in our field. Political scientists spent time at a recent meeting discussing the issue and coming up with a list of tangible actions that could be taken by both the discipline and individuals (see here). Their suggestions are not discipline-specific and, especially for anthropologists like myself wondering how to respond without clear guidance yet from our discipline, certainly worth a look.
Megan Tracy is an assistant professor at James Madison University. She is currently in Beijing conducting her NSF-funded research on China’s evolving food safety regulatory system and the transformation process of regulatory measures into on-farm practices following a series of scandals in the domestic dairy industry.