Congressional Republicans are broadening attempts to exert, in a move that could chill research into politically controversial education topics.
House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar S. Smith, R-Texas, last month began circulating a draft bill that would change the grant-review process at the National Science Foundation.
The bill, called the “High Quality Research Act” in a draft obtained by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s ScienceInsider, would require the NSF to certify, on an online website, that any grant-funded research is advancing national health, prosperity, or welfare; not duplicating other federal research; and “is the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large.”
At the same time, in a letter to acting NSF Director Cora B. Marrett, Rep. Smith said he had “concerns” about the “intellectual merit” of five grants and asked for peer-review and program-officer notes on their approval.
The moves provoked backlash from science advocates and congressional Democrats.
“By making this request, you are sending a chilling message to the entire scientific community that peer review may always be trumped by political review,” wrote Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, also of Texas, in a letter to the chairman.
The squabble carries high stakes for education. In the fiscal 2013 budget, the National Science Foundation’s budget for science, technology, education, and mathematics education alone is more than $1.15 billion. By contrast, the federal Education Department’s research agency, the Institute of Education Sciences, had $597.3 million to spend on education research this fiscal year.
The MSF declined to comment on the debate.
For his part, Rep. Smith issued a statement saying the draft came from “bipartisan discussions” and the bill “maintains the current peer-review process and improves on it by adding a layer of accountability ... to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent on the highest-quality research possible.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2013 edition of Education Week as NSF Peer Review on GOP’s Radar