• Keep scientific peer review free of political intervention

    The US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is getting involved in the selection of what specific research proposals are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The chair of the House Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tx) wrote a letter to the director of the NSF that identified five current NSF grants that in his view did not merit funding.

    lamar smith_0

    This is a bad idea, because it opens science to political manipulation and undermines the function of science as an independent source of evidence.

    The problem is that when politicians select specific research projects for funding, they make bad choices. When politicians choose projects through specific legislation, they earmark projects that will bring government funds to their jurisdictions, lowering the quality of science relative to projects chosen competitively through peer review.

    Politicians also make choices on ideological criteria instead of scientific merit. An interesting case study occurred in 1991, when social conservatives including the Family Research Council successfully pressured the Secretary of Health and Human Services to rescind funding for a study of adolescent sexual behaviour that the NIH had chosen based on competitive scientific peer review.

    Luckily, the study was eventually funded and completed. It is now known as The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). The Add Health data have made an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of adolescent health, producing thousands of publications that have received many thousands of citations. All of this would have been lost if ideological decision making had prevailed.

    In keeping with the principles of a democratic society, Congress properly has the authority to regulate the conduct of publicly-funded science. But it should exercise this by setting broad objectives for what constitutes a desired social outcome and what ethical principles should regulate the conduct of research. There should be an arms length relationship between politicians and decisions about specific scientific projects. One of the reasons to have independent scientific peer review is that it helps us get the news that we need to hear, whether or not the news fits our preconceptions.


    • Hey, you got a problem with a member of congress tossing off a sure fire press release for the folks back home? Why he says it’s based on his review of NSF. I’m sure he must have spent nanoseconds of great labor to come up with his topics.

      Just imagine how hard he must of worked with his staff to insure that our nation is protected from the likes of pictures in the National Geographic — and we all know about them, shades of Mapplethorpe gone wild!!

      There’s an easy way to get him to abandon this. Just tell him that a Democrat, Bill Proxmire, used to do the same thing, sort of. That’ll do it.

      • Carl,
        That’s a clever suggestion. But I think — and you may agree — that this is more than just press release stuff. He is also reportedly drafting legislation to change the NSF peer review criteria.

    • As if that’s not enough, this guy wants to abolish every survey the US Census Bureau collects except for the decennial Census.


      All our economic data would stop coming in. In health, that would prevent us from doing things like projecting Medicare’s growth rates.

      Plus when we get surveys like the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey, the National Health Interview Survey, the Medical Expenditures Panel Survey, they’re surveys that are randomly selected and where the respondents are weighted to that their experiences are representative of the whole US. You can’t determine each person’s sample weight without knowing the number of people in the US. We would lose a whole lot of healthcare survey data as well.

      Basically, there’s a war against science. Many types of science.