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Peer review politics

Call it "non-peer review."  But don't dismiss it simply as anti-science.  Milder versions of the discussion draft known as the High Quality Research Act have been propagated by Congress before.  Remember the Golden Fleece Awards?  How about the rationales from have-not states and institutions for earmarking?  This one is different. 

Nothing is more symbolic of the investment of federal funding in science than peer review.  Delegating responsibility to experts to judge quality and creativity in competitions for scarce public resources can be traced, with a deep bow to the 17th-century "natural philosophers" of the Royal Society of London, to the founding of the National Science Foundation over 60 years ago.   Yet the gatekeepers for those taxpayer dollars are elected officials who appropriate agency budgets for the pursuit of research and education in the national interest. 

That compact creates a fragile balance of authority between peer reviewers who control the behind-the-scenes evaluation of proposals, itself a delicate set of transactions that sometimes go awry, and science's ultimate accountability to those who approve payment.  Both are perilous negotiations.

When a House Committee chair proposes to add a criterion that supersedes NSF's own by defining research "in the national interest," then requests copies of confidential reviews, most scientists recoil indignantly.  Isn't this an incursion into the autonomy of reviewers to recommend what is "best," "novel," and a sound investment?  Has the compact cracked?  Has the political partner stepped over the line in the decades-long division of labor in grants-making?  The Science Advisor, the ranking member of the House Science Committee, former NSF Directors, and former chairs of the National Science Board (NSF's governing body) all think so.    

There is a big difference between the vigorous "inside baseball" disagreements among experts participating in peer review panels and the idea of introducing legistation that adds a layer of agency administrative review—in the name of "accountability"—to the funding recommendations made by those panels. One might ask accountability for what? 

At the moment we are perched on a slippery slope of decision-making about federal research grants.  This is not benign second-guessing.  The very spirit of inquiry is violated by any attempt to "pick winners" or to avert investing in basic research or education projects that, by their titles alone, seem frivolous, controversial, or allegedly subversive of the national interest

No, this goes beyond the chronic antipathy between one branch of government "implementing priorities" and another providing "oversight" for programs and outcomes. Respecting the processes by which communities operate assumes trust in behavior, motivation, and the compact itself.  One congressional committee seems bent on altering the compact and all it represents.  Let's be careful out there.

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