June 7, 2013 | Posted By John Kaplan, PhD

I have commented previously on the stupidity with which some members of congress approach science. I never seem to have any trouble finding new material on this subject. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology seems to be an especially rich source of such material.  You would think that the members of congress from Oklahoma and Texas would be pretty busy these days. With a huge fertilizer explosion in Texas and the direct hit of a massive EF5 tornado in More, Oklahoma the need for humanitarian aid and rebuilding would be enough to keep Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) quite busy, as well they should be. But these guys are nonetheless able to find plenty of time to mess with the operations of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Senator Coburn initiated this latest episode earlier this year by successfully attaching language to the 2013 appropriation for the National Science Foundation that prohibits funding for any political science research unless the director of the NSF certifies that it relates to national security or economic development. Representative Smith, the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has now initiated an attempt to apply these principles to the entire portfolio of NSF funding in all disciplines. The current guidelines to reviewers of grant applications for funding by NSF to address the “intellectual merit” of the research proposal as well as its broader impact on society and the scientific community.

Representative Smith has proposed a draft bill entitled the High Quality Research Act which reqires the director of the NSF to certify that each funded proposal is “"… 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." 

He has now gone further in an unprecedented micromanagement asked for the confidential peer reviews of specific funded NSF projects. He questioned whether these projects meet the intellectual merit standard. 

Fortunately the NSF has supporters on the House Science Committee as well. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Representative Bernice Johnson, also of Texas, took strong exception to the proposal. She sent Smith a letter questioning both Smith’s judgment and motives. Read it twice. It is very well done.

Objective peer review of science has been the standard which has helped advance our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. It has supported our standard of living in every sense. We should all send Mr. Smith from Texas the message: Don’t mess with science.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

2 comments | Topics: Bioethics and Public Policy , Government , Responsible Conduct of Research


Steven P

Steven P wrote on 06/07/13 4:15 PM

Reminds me of this recent article on representatives being "derpy." Even after faced with evidence and reason, they hang on to old beliefs because their prior beliefs are so strong.


Steve wrote on 06/16/13 7:02 PM

Props to you for calling members of congress stupid. In my opinion, politicians in general don't have a great attitude towards science. I think they simply don't understand science but want people to think they understand it.

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