Holdren Defends NSF Grant Review

Presidential science advisor argues against draft legislation that would change how the National Science Foundation judges grant proposals.  

By | May 6, 2013

John Holdren, science advisor to President ObamaWIKIMEDIA, NASA/BILL INGALLSJohn Holdren, the senior science advisor to President Barack Obama, has defended basic research and strongly criticized a draft bill that would revise the criteria used by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to review grant applications, reported ScienceInsider.

Drawn up by Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House of Representatives science committee, the proposed “High-Quality Research Act” would require the NSF to prioritize projects that “advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare” of the United States, that are “groundbreaking,” and that are not already supported by another federal agency. The NSF currently judges grant proposals based on their “intellectual merit” and on the “broader implications” of the research on society. In an April 30 statement, Smith said that is legislation would improve on that process “by adding a layer of accountability” to the taxpayer.

But Holdren, speaking last week (May 2) at the Science and Technology Policy Forum in Washington, D.C., argued that by requiring the NSF to predict the future impact of research so far in advance, Smith’s bill would violate a key tenet of fundamental research. “It makes no sense at all to confine taxpayer support to those projects for which a likely direct contribution to the national interest can be identified in advance,” he said. “Unless, of course, the national interest is defined as expanding the boundaries of knowledge, which would be fine by me but which is not, I think, the intention of the members of Congress who have proposed this kind of language.”

Holdren also argued that it is dangerous to allow politicians to interfere with the peer-review process, which he described as “the gold standard” for grant proposals. “Fiddling in any fundamental way with the model of judging research proposals being reviewed by scientific experts in the relevant fields would place at risk the world-leading quality of this nation's scientific and engineering enterprises,” he said. 

While the Obama administration has not taken an official position on the draft legislation, Holdren said that “the President made it very clear on Monday that he will do everything he can to protect that gold standard," referring to Obama’s recent remarks at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Avatar of: Ken Pimple

Ken Pimple

Posts: 43

May 6, 2013

There's a missing close quotation mark in your last sentence.

May 7, 2013

Let's parse this quote from the article, " 'advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare' of the United States, that are 'groundbreaking,' and that are not already supported by another federal agency." 

Here's my perspective, for what it's worth:

1.  "advance the national health" -- um,no, that's what NIH is supposed to do.  NIH has lots more $$ to spend than NSF.  Let NIH do the "national health" stuff and let NSF do the more basic discovery stuff (which may or may not turn out to be relevant to health).

2.  "and that are not already supported by another federal agency" -- yes!  Theoretically, that's already supposed to be the case, but we all know that some grantee institutions and their PIs cheat by submitting either the same or very closely similar projects to multiple agencies and then cheerfully accept funding from all proferred sources without bothering to clue the agencies in to the funding truth.  Sometimes the real truth is hidden behind titles that sound different, or ever-so-slightly-different details in protocols.  It would be nice if NSF program officers were given some "teeth" to prevent this kind of abuse, which leads to wasted resources.  

Again, those comments are based on my perspective.  But let me put it this way -- I know the system all too well.  


Avatar of: Passerby


Posts: 1

May 17, 2013

To the BoyntonBeachBoy:  Clearly, you not familiar with the history and mission of the agency:

The National Science Foundation Act of 1950 (Public Law 81-507) set forth NSF's mission and purpose: To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense....

Missing in the dialog:  the methods used by NSF administrators to identify emerging issues and external review of the proposed funding program and it's objectives and deliverables.



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