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Surprise! Republican bill adds politics to science funding

'Forget peer review, let's get the experts at Congress involved'

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The chairman of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Lamar Smith (R-TX), is planning new legislation that would limit the scope of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the biggest research-funding organization in the US, and bring funding decisions under political oversight.

Smith - you might remember him from such failed legislation as SOPA - is touting the High Quality Research Act as a way to avoid unnecessary duplication in the field of science funding and as a way of allowing members of Congress to have an input into funding decisions.

According to a copy of the legislation leaked to the Huffington Post, the bill would require each piece of funding to be signed off as unique, with no overlap with another study, and must only be "in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense."

The scientific community has also expressed strong reservations about another of Smith's proposed changes: that future funding should only be awarded if it is "not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies," since this shows a basic misunderstanding of how scientific experimentation works.

The NSF would be required to draw up a framework over the next year or instituting the same rules on other areas of science funding funded by the federal government, and report back regularly to the Committee on progress.

Smith also told Dr. Cora Marrett, acting head of the NSF, that members of the Committee should have full access to the scientific briefs that are used to decide funding, which at the moment is conducted under anonymous peer review to measure a proposal's scientific credentials and usefulness.

In addition, Smith asked for details of five specific grants that were awarded last year, including a $435,000 study on "Comparative network analysis: Mapping global social interactions", $260,001's worth of analysis into "The International Criminal Court and pursuit of justice," and $152,464 for an examination of "Regulation and accounting transparency in China's dairy industry."

Smith's letter drew an pithy response from the ranking opposition member of the Committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). She pointed out that no chairman had ever sought to influence funding decisions and to do so is the very antithesis of the peer-review systems that the NSF uses, which is considered a "gold standard" for other funding systems.

"By making this request," Johnson wrote, "you are sending a chilling message to the entire scientific community that peer review may always be trumped by political review. You also threaten to compromise the anonymity that is crucial to the frank and open exchange of comments and critiques during the review process, and in doing so, further compromise the integrity of the merit review process."

The thought of some of the less-scientifically aware politicians on the Committee making judgments on scientific funding is worrying indeed, considering their record.

For example, Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) is currently on the Committee, a man who described evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory as "lies straight from the pit of hell." Former Committee member Todd Akin (R-MO) also seemed under the impression that women could not get pregnant from "legitimate rape".

If Smith's bill is introduced, it may also get short shrift from the White House. President Obama gave an address on Monday at the National Academy of Sciences in which he praised the contribution of scientific research to American history and progress.

"One of the things that I've tried to do over these last four years and will continue to do over the next four years," Obama said, "is to make sure that we are promoting the integrity of our scientific process; that not just in the physical and life sciences, but also in fields like psychology and anthropology and economics and political science – all of which are sciences because scholars develop and test hypotheses and subject them to peer review – but in all the sciences, we've got to make sure that we are supporting the idea that they're not subject to politics."

Good luck, Barack. ®

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