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Foster Fights Efforts To Politicize Scientific Review

Apr 22, 2015
Press Release

Washington, DC—Today, Congressman Bill Foster (IL-11) introduced an amendment to H.R. 1806, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act during a Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing.

The amendment would strike Section 106 which adds a dangerous political filter to the National Science Foundation’s gold-standard merit-review process.

“This amendment is yet another attempt from Members of Congress to tell scientists: we know better than you,” said Foster. “Protecting independent scientific inquiry is no less important than protecting freedom of the press or freedom of speech. Injecting a political filter into the scientific review process is a dangerous proposal, and that’s why I’ve introduced an amendment to strike this harmful provision.” 

Foster spoke about the amendment during the hearing. Video is available here.

Text of Foster’s remarks is below:

Mr. Chairman, my amendment would strike Section 106 which, in my view, adds a dangerous political filter, and additional bureaucratic overhead to NSF’s gold-standard merit-review process.

I do not stand alone in this view. The overwhelming majority of my colleagues in the scientific community are quite uncomfortable with this language. Moreover, I’m aware that you, or your staff, have asked the National Science Board to endorse this section, and that they had sufficient concerns to decide against any such endorsement.

All of us here want to be good stewards of taxpayer money. This is also true of the National Science Foundation, who has taken steps on their own to strengthen transparency and accountability. They implemented a new policy earlier this year to ensure that abstracts are written more clearly for public consumption and that all funded grants are consistent with the mission of the agency as stated in the 1950 NSF Act, “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; and to secure the national defense.”

Section 106 goes above and beyond what the NSF has already required before we’ve even had a chance to see the impact of NSF’s own efforts.

Additionally, while Section 106 may seem innocuous to some, given that the Chairman has already requested the full portfolios for more than 70 grants that he or his staff seems to have deemed  as potentially not in the national interest, it seems reasonable to call this language significantly political.

The two-year campaign by the Chairman has sent a significant chill across the entire scientific community, not just in the social and behavioral sciences, but in all fields.

An early career computer scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Daphne Yao, whose grant was on the target list, was interviewed for an article in Science Magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, on February 18 of this year. I’ll read from that article:

“The committee’s investigation is also taking a toll on her morale. Yao cites her 5-year, $562,000 award, entitled “CAREER: Human-Behavior Driven Malware Detection,” [it’s computer science cyber-security] as an example. “Because it comes from a panel of established experts in the community, receiving the CAREER award really gave me this big boost in confidence,” she says. “It was a career-defining moment. And then to have members of the committee, with no technology background, judge the value of the research based solely on its title, is very disheartening.”

Mr. Chairman, you’ve promised that there will be more requests for grant documents if and when this language is enacted. I worry that the major purpose here is wanting to hold NSF officials personally accountable for funding decisions that the majority happen to disagree with, perhaps on ideological grounds.

Finally, there is a real impact that I worry most about, which is the discouragement of high-risk, or curiosity driven research. If this language goes into law in the same political context that I just discussed, then we are essentially sending a message to the entire scientific community, to those submitting proposals and those reviewing proposals alike, to play it safe lest they become a target in the future. I cannot believe that we really want to discourage high-risk research, and yet that is what we appear to be doing with section 106.

Mr. Chairman, NSF’s merit-review system is the gold-standard for the world. And yet here we are, the U.S. Congress, trying to impose a level of political review that endangers a scientific system that is the envy of the world. I strongly urge my colleagues to support my amendment and to strike this provision from the bill.