Republicans on the House science committee are seeking to gain oversight over what scientific research the National Science Foundation funds. Tennessee representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is proposing a piece of legislation called the “High Quality Research Act” that would give politicians the power to approve or reject research. The bill has yet to be officially introduced, but is an overt attempt to insert politics into the scientific process and at a time when the U.S. is losing its place in the world in research.
Currently, an independent panel of scientists oversees funding for scientific research. They make decisions based on their expertise and knowledge regarding basic research that might (like this study involving glow-in-the-dark sperm in fruit flies) seem outlandish and trivial, but that provides one more building block towards a larger discovery.
Republicans Want More Government Oversight About Scientific Research
As a copy of the bill provided by the Huffington Post reveals, the “High Quality Research Act” demands that the NSF director provide written certification that each and every grant the federal agency funds is key for crucial to national security or the U.S. economy and is “the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and … is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.” The bill seeks to put similar restrictions on other federal science agencies.
Smith singles out these research projects in his letter to acting NSF Director Cora Marrett:
1. Award Abstract #1247824: “Picturing Animals in National Geographic, 1888-2008,” March 15, 2013, ($227,437);
2. Award Abstract #1230911: “Comparative Histories of Scientific Conservation: Nature, Science, and Society in Patagonian and Amazonian South America,” September 1, 2012 ($195,761);
3. Award Abstract #1230365: “The International Criminal Court and the Pursuit of Justice,” August 15, 2012 ($260,001);
4. Award Abstract #1226483, “Comparative Network Analysis: Mapping Global Social Interactions,” August 15, 2012, ($435,000); and
5. Award Abstract #1157551: “Regulating Accountability and Transparency in China’s Dairy Industry,” June 1, 2012 ($152,464).
Smith — who chaired the House Judiciary Committee last session and was a proponent of its version of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) — does not detail why he seeks further investigation for the above five projects.
Regarding the fifth one, perhaps Smith does not think that federal dollars should be sent to examine the dairy industry in a foreign country. A review of the project’s abstract shows that researchers plan to study the 2008 melamine poisoning scandal in China’s dairy industry in light of the issues of global food safety. The project also seeks to create “interdisciplinary partnerships between U.S. and Chinese researchers and present opportunities for the mentoring of U.S. and Chinese students” — to build bridges across cultures precisely by promoting joint study in a (what is supposed to be) non-politicized area, science.
Defending the Integrity of the Peer Review Process
Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson has responded with an unequivocal statement to Smith that his letter
…marks the beginning of an investigative effort, the implications of which are profound. This is the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely regarded as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world.
For “political figures with the agenda, biases, and no expertise” to insert themselves into the peer review process is literally “the antithesis” of what it is, an evaluation of scientific work that operates according to the principles of science. Smith’s request, writes Johnson, sends “a chilling message to the scientific community that peer review will always be trumped by political review.”
Conservatives Say No to Eco-friendly Light Bulbs
The public discourse about climate change has made it all too clear how some how scientific phenomena have been turned into heavily politicized issues, with disastrous consequences for all of us. A just-published study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has shown that those with conservative political views are less likely to buy products friendly to the environment such as energy-saving compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs.
Two years ago, Republicans went out of their way to repeal a law under which incandescent light bulbs would be phased out. “This is about more than just energy consumption. It is about personal freedom,” said Texas Representative Joe Barton, effectively turning an environmental and scientific issue into one about “liberty.”
On Monday, President Barack Obama spoke out about why we have to keep peer review autonomous. Akkihebbal Ravishankara, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, puts the matter simply, “The thing that would be really nice is if we could make science apolitical.”
As Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, observes, it is indeed a bit “ironic” that politicians who want the government to be “involved in picking winners and losers in science” are those very individuals who bristle at the notion of the government interfering with the economy.
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