Lamar Smith Peer Review: How One GOP Lawmaker Wants to Ruin the National Science Foundation


Meet Lamar Smith. Lamar is a Republican Congressman representing Texas's 21st district, the main sponsor of the much loathed Stop Online Piracy Act, as well as chairman of three House committees. One of those Smith-headed panels is the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. He is also an unhinged anti-science maniac who shouldn't have any say on anything pertaining to science, let alone chairing a House committee with jurisdiction over laboratories, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Weather Service. And now this anti-science crusader has his sights set on stripping peer-review requirements from the NSF's grant application process and replacing it with funding criteria that is decidedly less transparent and wouldn't include the opinions of independent experts.

Peer-review is (In this case) the process by which a grant proposal is evaluated by one or more individuals of similar competence and field of work to the person who proposed the grant. The current NSF peer-review process is to solicit the opinion of independent experts on two criteria: the intellectual merits as well as the broader societal impacts of the proposed research. When it comes to science, this is the kind of process you want to have in place, not just for grant proposals but also for reviewing the results of the research to make sure all every "t" is crossed and "i" dotted.

Lamar Smith wants to see that process replaced. He is currently preparing a bill that would replace the peer-review process and force the NSF to use three criteria in judging the worthiness of every grant. Those criteria would require any grant to be:

- "… 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 ..."

- "… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and ..."

- "… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies."

I'll admit that that last one is actually reasonable, but the NSF and other federal scientific bodies already have rules in place that are intended to block new grants that have previously received funding. And while mistakes still get made, there are efforts in place to limit them. The previous two requirements on the other hand show Smith's total lack of understanding of not only basic research but also the role of the NSF. Given that much basic research is exploring the unknown, it's next to impossible to predict as to whether or not said research will end up being groundbreaking or not. Guess just what the NSF is specifically charged with doing? That's right, funding basic research into new scientific endeavors.

I'll give an example of just what Lamar Smith's new criteria would mean for science. During the hunt for the Higgs Boson particle, the NSF poured millions of dollars in the Large Hadron Collider and the infrastructure behind it. Given that so far the Higgs Boson is looking to be fairly mundane with few commercial applications or groundbreaking societal implications, it's likely that had Smith's criteria been enacted, we'd still be hunting for the Higgs.

This has all been done in response to a 2012 hearing where several social science grants were held up as examples as wasteful spending. During the hearing, presidential science adviser John Holdren told the committee that "The peer-review process is the backbone of our basic research enterprise, and we've done very well with it ...That doesn't say it never makes a mistake. But I think it's better than any alternative, including me or you trying to determine what is good basic research in fields not our own."

So far the biggest opponent to Smith is coming from the top Democrat on the Committee, Bernice Johnson (D-Texas). In a letter to Smith she wrote that "The moment you compromise both the merit review process and the basic research mission of NSF is the moment you undo everything that has enabled NSF to contribute so profoundly to our national health, prosperity, and welfare." No truer words have been said in this deranged saga of science being presided over by someone who doesn't believe in it. The peer-review process is the best way to determine how the NSF gives grants, and we can't let Lamar Smith do away with it.