Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Who Should Decide How to Allocate Science Funding? (3)

Jason E. Summers


June 7, 2013

By Jason E. Summers

This article is the third installment in a three-part series.

Recent draft legislation put forward by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) requires that the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) formally affirm that all funded research satisfies a set of congressionally mandated criteria designed to ensure that federally funded science “directly benefit the American people.” In the first and second installments of this series, I argued that this legislation centralizes control, undermining a robust devolutionary system of funding allocation by peer review. It proposes an ill-conceived change to the process that will restrict federal funding from fulfilling the utilitarian justifications on which the draft legislation is predicated. 

In this final installment, I complete my case against the proposed High Quality Research Act by considering whether the proposed legislation respects the right roles of the institutions that are responsible for ensuring a proper allocation of federal science funding.

During the science-budget hearing, the president’s science adviser John Holdren gave a crucial justification for devolution of authority to scientists. He argued that the “peer-review process is the backbone of our basic research enterprise…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.” Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty supports this. In other words, funding allocation by peer review recognizes that adjudication between claims in a particular institutional or societal structure (e.g., schools, families, science) is best conducted by those within the structures with competence to evaluate claims (e.g., teachers evaluating what constitutes good teaching, parents evaluating what constitutes good parenting, and scientists evaluating what constitutes good science).

When Rep. Smith gave examples of apparently wasteful grants awarded by NSF and requested details of the review process, he overstepped his sphere of competence. A short article by the principle investigator of one of the named awards and a cursory review of the “broader impacts” statement of another of the awards show that much of the cited “wasteful” research apparently fulfills Smith’s objectives regarding health and human safety. Although Rep. Smith stated he wants to ensure that those involved in the decision-making process “focus on more helpful subjects, more scientific subjects, and more basic research,” and not to “make Congress ‘reviewers’ of NSF grant proposals,” he undermined his own claims by raising examples of what he viewed to be poor allocation of funds.

However, as Rep. Smith rightly argued, the legislative branch does have a legitimate role to play in the allocation of science funding, more than simply “establish[ing] policies and resources that sustain funding for high quality science,” as others have argued in response to the proposed measures. Indeed, as a classic report from the National Academy of Sciences shows, the responsibility for the allocation of science funding is shared between the research community itself?through peer review?and various elected, appointed, and career employees spread across the agencies and branches of government. In this process, government officials set the broad goals and directions for research and make tactical allocations between and within agencies. The scientific community exercises authority over funding allocation for individual projects through peer evaluation. Mediating layers of government officials translate goals and directions from national and agency levels to the particularities of fields and subfields. Scientifically trained technical experts within agencies make tactical and strategic allocations in collaboration with or based on assessments by practicing members of the scientific community.

This process for allocation of federal science funding, developed after World War II, gave rise to countless new findings and the world’s most robust research and development community. But more than that, the process recognizes the legitimate government interest in science and its responsibility for right allocation of science funding, while not requiring that it exercise authority outside of its competence. This is a good approximation of the ideal system I have proposed, one in which government “allows institutions within society to function according to their own internal order, regulating only their public aspects as needed to ensure public justice.”   

In this regard, the legislature functions best and most appropriately when it sets national priorities for near- and far-term efforts and evaluates priorities proposed by the executive branch. However, the proposed High Quality Research Act attempts to ensure goals and directions by implicitly assessing what constitutes good science; it applies constraints that are predicated on a misunderstanding of the scientific process and convoluted expression of the purpose of federal science funding. There is nothing to be gained from such legislation.

Jason E. Summers is Chief Scientist of Applied Research in Acoustics LLC. The views expressed here are those of the author alone. Neither he nor his firm have current or pending awards with NSF.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”