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Science Funding Criteria Challenged

Republican representatives question how the NSF reviews grants.

By | April 19, 2013

The President's science advisor John HoldrenNASA, PAUL E. ALERSAt a hearing held by the Committee on Science, Space and Technology earlier this week (April 17), congressmen and women discussed how the National Science Foundation (NSF) should spend its money, saying that the agency should focus on more practical research, ScienceInsider reported.

Committee leader Lamar Smith, a Republican representative from Texas, suggested that the NSF should ask those applying for grants to demonstrate how their research would benefit American citizens.

National Science Board Chair Dan Arvizu, who was at the hearing representing the NSF with the agency’s acting director, Cora Marrett, retorted that the agency already assesses intellectual merit and broader impacts of research and that applying Smith’s criteria could “compromise the integrity of the process.” “Are you saying that requiring the research to benefit Americans would be limiting?” said Smith, according to ScienceInsider.

Earlier in the day, the legislators had grilled White House science advisor John Holdren, zeroing in on social science projects they did not believe should have been funded, such as a study of the portrayal of animals in the magazine National Geographic.

Holdren defended current grant-reviewing practice. “The peer-review process is the backbone of our basic research enterprise, and we’ve done very well with it,” he said, according to ScienceInsider. “That doesn’t say it never makes a mistake. But I think it’s better than any alternative.” He went on to challenges politicians’ ability, including his own, to accurately judge the merits of basic research.

“I think it’s a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding,” Holdren said, according to ScienceInsider.

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April 22, 2013

We need "fundamental research."  That means pure research, learning about how things work, what they're made of, that kind of thing.  You can't do "practical research" (i.e., invent things that will be of societal benefit) until you have the basic knowledge to underpin the invention.  You can't invent an electronic device if you don't already understand how electrons flow through materials and how that flow can be controlled.  You can't cure a disease if you don't understand the etiology of that disease.  

Requiring research to be "practical" would mean it would not be basic research, but rather the application of already-existent knowledge for practical purposes.  That's engineering, not basic research.  To focus on the practical applications of existing knowledge would mean no further expansion of the knowledge base, which would indeed be limiting.  

 

Avatar of: FJScientist

FJScientist

Posts: 24

April 24, 2013

Last I checked, there is a lot of knowledge that humankind has of yet to uncover. Countries that support such investigationsalso  happen to build the expertise and tools that sometimes can be directly translated into products or services that further the economy. That occurs when the research has matured into something where someone feels willing to risk investing their own time and money to commercialize the research. Most of the time, the early phases of that commercial translation stays local (i.e., accessible to the inventors) and is not outsourced to far-flung areas of the globe. So, support of basic research is a win for humanity (knowledge), for the society that supports it (economic) and frankly, for those individuals willing to risk their own funds to carry-forward early stage research initially supported by the funding agencies.

The discussion essentially involves the tricky question of how to allocate the early stage research funds. Those are the tough decisions that affect society and actually belong at the representative level. If I argue that there is merit in pursuing knowledge for knowledge's sake, and an elected official questions whether we may be better off having research funds directed more to specific areas, then I need to come up with an argument, hopefully backed by solid evidence, for my opinion.

In my opinion, allocating funds to specific research areas is often inefficient since, most times, the research area in not mature enough to require the funds allocated. We can't plan the outcome. But, I have no evidence to support my conclusion since we rarely conduct such funding experiments. To counter my own view (keep research basic), I can come up with at least one example (AIDS) where a national consensus and a lot of directed funding achieved a remarkable turnaround in short period of time. I don't know is whether that would have occured without directing funds to AIDS research but I do know that the national dialogue associated with that directional funding provided a sense of urgency.

In short, we need to figure out is the best way to help broad-based granting agencies to allocate funds into different fields. How much money goes to the NSF? the DOE? NASA? the NIH? Different directorates within each agency? How much of that goes to research 'directed' to more immediate outcomes? Are the SBIR and STTR mechanisms currently in place the proper way to foster that? Congressperson Smith's comments have a legitimate basis and it is certainly his job to ask such questions. I would argue with him that I don't think that product-directed research is an efficient use of funds. But I acknowledge it as a goal. I would discuss with him the different ways in which society can otherwise foster the translation of its publicly-supported knowledge base into practical benefits for the country's residents and economy. Then, it's up to Congress to make those decisions.

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