Tuesday, July 30, 2013

High Quality Research Act

Earlier this year, Lamar Smith, the new chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, drafted a bill that would require that the National Science Foundation (NSF) director certify that projects funded by the NSF are groundbreaking and in the interests of national health and welfare. Additionally, it would also set in motion a process to determine whether the same criteria should be adopted by every other federal science agency. This could potentially politicize decisions made by the NSF. The bill is called the High Quality Research Act, and it has not yet been formally introduced in Congress.

Specifically, the draft would require the NSF director to post on the NSF website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:
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 face value to a lay audience, this may not seem like such a bad thing; after all, don’t we want our tax dollars to fund innovative research that has the potential to cure diseases? However, it is concerning that bill could potentially undermine the peer review process, which has always been at the crux of scientific research. The best feedback and criticism comes from other researchers in the same field, and this needs to continue. However, this is probably the worst-case scenario. In reality, it seems to me that this bill would not have the power to replace the peer review process, and it says nothing about doing so.

I can understand the motivation for writing such a bill. The government is appropriating less money for research, especially after the sequestration cuts, so with its limited resources it should fund projects that are of greatest interest to the American people. However, I really do not see this bill having much effect because the NSF and our country’s scientists use these promises (i.e. their work is groundbreaking and of interest to the American people) to justify their grant recipients and research, respectively. Nevertheless, it is important to be mindful that this bill could potentially undermine the peer review process.

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