“High Quality Research Act” would rewrite NSF merit review criteria

In mid-April, word leaked out that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), current chair of the House Science Committee, intended to introduce legislation that would rewrite the merit review criteria used by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The bill, “The High Quality Research Act,” came on the heels of two hearings on the Obama administrations proposed FY 2014 science budget. During the hearings, Smith pressed NSF officials as to whether all NSF funded research should be required to meet the criteria of promoting national health, prosperity or security. Two days later, a draft of the bill was circulated among the science policy community with a note that the Chair intended to mark up the legislation later that week. Of primary concern to the scientific community is section 2, which states:

SEC. 2. HIGH QUALITY RESEARCH. Prior to making an award of any contract or grant funding for a scientific research project, the Director of the National Science Foundation shall publish a statement on the public website of the Foundation that certifies that the research project—(1) is 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) is the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and (3) is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.

The Obama administration has quick to publicly denounced the legislation. President Obama vowed to uphold the integrity of the peer review process during remarks to the National Academy of Sciences on April 29. A few days later, White House Science Advisor John Holdren criticized the proposal at the AAAS Science and Technology Forum sponsored by AAAS on May 2 (http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2013/05/holdren-attacks-house-bill-defen.html). Scientific societies (including ASLO) and research organizations sent a group letter to all members of the House and Senate opposing the proposed legislation, warning that shifting the criterion for awarding grants “away from scientific merit as the primary goal” would have “negative impacts on our nation’s entire research and innovation enterprise.” Several past chairs of the National Science Board criticized the legislation in a May 8 letter as well (http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2013/05/pressure-builds-on-congress-to-k.html).

Smith defended his draft legislation in an April 30 statement on the committee’s website (http://science.house.gov/press-release/chairman-smith%E2%80%99s-statement-draft-nsf-legislation), saying that the bill “maintains the current peer review process and improves on it by adding a layer of accountability.” Smith said that his draft bill was intended to stimulate “meaningful discussion” about how to improve the NSF grant process. He expressed disappointment that others chose to “play politics and misrepresent the nature of the draft bill.”

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