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Tensions Ease Between National Science Foundation And Congressional Panel

Agency and House Science Committee come to terms over peer review

by Andrea Widener
March 30, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 13

Tundra Turnaround
Members of the House Science Committee are briefed on the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI), a balloon-borne, wide-field  telescope designed to study the high-energy sky at gamma-ray energies (gamma-ray burst explosions), the origin of positrons in our galaxy, and the creation of elements in our nearby Universe.  COSI is an NSF-funded project from the University of California Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory.
Credit: House Science Committee
The House Science Committee’s trip to NSF sites in Antarctica might have led to a breakthrough in relations with the agency.

After several fraught years, the National Science Foundation has reached an apparent truce with the House of Representatives Science, Space & Technology Committee.

Friction between the research funding agency and the congressional panel had intensified over NSF’s peer review process for grants. Committee Chairman Lamar S. Smith’s (R-Texas) staff dug through the details of nearly 60 NSF grants—many on climate change or in social sciences. Then Smith introduced legislation last year that would have changed NSF’s peer review process for all grants, including chemistry research. The agency and the wider science community have taken defensive stances against any interference in the way NSF reviews grants, a process that is highly regarded internationally.

But at a recent hearing held by the committee, Smith and NSF Director France A. Córdova reached an agreement on what had been two key areas of conflict. First is Smith’s desire that the agency certify that all NSF grants are in the “national interest.” And second is his demand that the grant selection process be more open.

Observers are optimistic that the new agreement will mean a turn toward better relations between the committee and NSF.

“I think there is clearly an easing of the tension,” said Dan E. Arvizu, chair of the National Science Board, which oversees NSF, and who is director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The big turnaround may have happened last December, when Córdova led a nine-day trip for Smith and nine other House Science Committee members to observe NSF’s Antarctic research activities. That excursion, which was requested by the committee, may have opened up stalled lines of communication, observers say.

The recent dustup between NSF and Smith’s committee isn’t the first time that Congress has had problems with NSF. Almost since the agency was founded in 1950, lawmakers have attacked specific grants as wasteful or complained that their jurisdictions weren’t getting a big enough slice of the research funding pie. In the past decade, though, NSF and Congress had gone through a particularly smooth period where the agency saw broad support.

The recent problems cropped up almost as soon as Smith took over the Science Committee in January 2013. He began demanding to review the details of specific grants.

At first, the agency pushed back, saying that it wasn’t appropriate for the committee to review the peer review records behind individual grants, which have previously been confidential. After much back-and-forth, the agency eventually agreed to allow both Republican and Democratic committee staff members to see the records. But they could only do so in person at NSF headquarters, and the records had reviewers’ names redacted.

Around that same time, Smith introduced the FIRST (Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science & Technology) Act. The measure would have added to the peer review process by requiring the NSF director to personally affirm that each of the agency’s 11,000 grants was in the national interest. It would also have mandated individual NSF employees to write a justification for why they awarded a specific grant as part of peer review. In addition, it would have expanded Congress’s ability to trim individual research programs, which it doesn’t exercise now.

Several science organizations came out against the bill, focusing on its peer review provisions. Many in the science community worried that what they perceived as attacks on NSF’s peer review system would inhibit scientists from applying for research grants that didn’t have a known application and NSF from funding these projects. The bill never became law.

The science organizations also said they were confused by the committee staff’s reviews of already approved grants. “We weren’t clear where all the grant inquiries were taking us,” explains Tobin L. Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities (AAU). “We said all along that it is totally reasonable for the committee to exercise its oversight. We just want the committee to be transparent too.” The committee has never given any goal for its probe other than oversight and doesn’t plan a report or other action.

By the time Córdova took over as director in March 2014, Smith’s committee had expanded the number and type of NSF grants that it planned to examine. Eventually, the number under scrutiny rose to almost 60 across several disciplines. The largest number by discipline, 24, was from the Division of Behavioral & Cognitive Sciences in the Social Sciences Directorate. None were from the Mathematical & Physical Sciences Directorate, which includes NSF’s Chemistry Division.

Many funded projects had titles that drew attention, perhaps because their research relevance isn’t immediately obvious. “The Study of Social Impacts of Tourism in Finnmark, Norway,” is one example. Others dealt with climate change, either from a science or a sociological perspective.

NSB’s Arvizu also went back and looked at some of the grants that were singled out. “Most of the catchy titles I’ve looked at that might be questioned do have scholarly merit underneath,” he said.

In early December 2014, in an attempt to address some of the acrimony, NSF issued new transparency and accountability policies. Under these, the major change is that the agency’s program directors will have to edit both project titles and abstracts to ensure they are written for the lay public.

“There is an obligation for program directors at NSF to be able to communicate the scholarship in a way that the layperson can understand, Arvizu says. “Will it be burdensome? It sometimes takes more work to do it that way.”

It’s not clear yet whether that burden will fall on the program directors entirely or if it will be pushed down to the scientists themselves. If the latter happens, it’s not necessarily a task researchers will be ready to take on, says Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society.

“Asking somebody who writes a proposal to examine the potential impact on national interest is not easy,” Lubell says. “There is no way of predicting the outcome of a project.”

At a February hearing, Córdova agreed that Smith’s demand that NSF grants be in the “national interest” is consistent with NSF’s original mission statement: to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.

“There is no question in my mind that we have the same goals,” Arvizu says. “The national interest is really one that relates to priorities: What are the priorities in which we will invest our very precious resources, otherwise known as the taxpayer dollars?”

Córdova’s acknowledgment, plus the agency’s transparency efforts, appeared to be enough to ease tensions between NSF and the committee, at least for now. Although almost everyone agrees that the situation is better, it’s still not clear what might happen going forward. Congress could introduce a new version of the FIRST Act, though it would likely be different from the legislation that caused so much upset among science advocates last year.

AAU’s Smith says that he thinks the “national interest” language in the FIRST Act legislation, which aligns with the agreements between NSF and the committee, is fine. However, he is still concerned about Congress proposing cuts to specific agency directorates, especially ones serving the social sciences and geosciences.

Others want to ensure the agreement that NSF’s original mission is focused on the “national interest” doesn’t end up changing the agency’s focus on basic science, Arvizu says. “You can have discovery science impacting immediately into commercial applications, but it’s not clear when you started doing your discovery science that you knew that was going to happen.”

Scroll through a list of the NSF grants selected for review by the House Science Committee at


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