Lamar Smith wants politics to overrule scientific merit at the National Science Foundation

According to ScienceInsider, Representative Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) has circulated draft legislation that would change the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant award criteria. Instead of using “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts” criteria, the NSF would be required to consider three vague and politically expedient criteria instead. Specifically, ScienceInsider reports that the criteria would be as follows:

  1. “… 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. “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
  3. “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

At first blush, these seem reasonable, even if they’re slightly tighter than “the potential to advance knowledge” (aka “intellectual merit”) and “the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes” (aka “broader impacts”).

But ask yourself this – do you want any one political party defining what science qualifies as “in the interests of the United States?” Do you want Congress or the President deciding what is or is not “the finest quality” instead of intellectual peers via the process of peer-review? Do you want the NSF to refuse funding to a single researcher just because the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) or the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) or the National Weather Service (NWS) is funding research on the same topic?

Taking climate research as an example, I don’t want President Obama cutting off Roy Spencer’s global temperature research because the USGCRP is funding similar research. Similarly, I don’t want a Republican representative from Texas refusing to fund the UGSCRP just because its climate disruption findings are politically annoying, while Spencer’s are more ideologically in-line with the Republican Party.

Science must inform politics, but for science to do that job, politics needs to be kept out of science as much as possible. As a funding agency, the NSF’s criteria are broad enough that they enable it to fund research while minimizing political interference. The NSF funds all sorts of things that believers of any particular ideology might find uncomfortable. And that’s the way it should stay.

5 replies »

  1. I don’t know what’s scarier: that Rep. Smith does not understand the full implications of what he is proposing, or that he does.

  2. How does “…not duplicative of other research…” seem in any way reasonable when one of the cornerstones of science is reproducibility?

    The ban on duplication would seem to eliminate the possibility of easily testing the reproducibility of public research unless another country or a private institution seeks to pursue the same topic.