Lamar Smith vs NSF

The same guy who has behind many of the efforts to enforce draconian copyright laws, Lamar Smith, R-TX, is unsurprisingly a climate science naysayer. Alas, he is head of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and thus an all around nuisance to the scientific community.

Double alas, owing to the shameless gerrymandering of Texas and my recent move, he is also my representative.


Anyway, Lamar has been at it again with yet another helpful suggestion, the High Quality Research Act. Historian Melinda Baldwin describes it thus:

would require the NSF director to pledge that funded projects are “high-quality” and benefit the American people, and it seems to be grounded in Smith’s concern that the NSF is funding “questionable” projects. Shortly before a draft of the HQRA leaked, Smith had called Presidential science advisor John Holdren and acting NSF Director Cora Marrett before Congress to justify the NSF’s spending decisions.

Smith’s repeated statement that he wanted to “improve” on the NSF’s grant-awarding process raised hackles in the scientific community. Currently, the NSF relies on reports from referees—i.e., peer review—to choose which applications will be funded. What many observers found really alarming was the letter Smith wrote to Marrett, requesting copies of the referee reports related to five NSF grants that he felt were suspicious, all in the social sciences.

Baldwin finds the historical background for this rather ironic, as it was a congressional attack on how science did business at the time that set up the present system.

However, Lamar Smith’s efforts appear not to be gaining traction in congress. This is because trust in the peer review process is high:

Does the HQRA signal that people outside the academy are losing their trust in scientific peer review? Actually, I think it’s just the opposite. The speed with which the HQRA appears to have died on the vine suggests that public faith in peer review is still quite robust. Notably, in the interview I linked above, the Science Committee aide went out of his way to convince the reporter that the HQRA was not interfering with peer review itself. No one seems to think that attacking peer review is going to be a winning strategy.

I’m not alone in wondering why there is such enthusiasm for such a multiply flawed system. But this may not be strategically a good time for such doubts:

In fact, trust in peer review might just be stronger outside the academy than within it at the moment. Scholars in many fields have written volumes on whether peer review actually works the way we want it to. I will be interested to see if the furor surrounding the HQRA dampens these kinds of critiques. When “trust in peer review!” has been such an effective rallying cry for the pro-NSF crowd, will scientists and other scholars want to criticize their best defense against Congressional interference?

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