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?

Jason E. Summers


May 24, 2013

By Jason E. Summers

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

While the scientific community has expressed significant concern over the impact of the sequester on US research, focus has most recently shifted to the question of congressional oversight of science funding and the degree to which Congress should exercise control over how federal agencies allocate this funding.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) took actions in March that limited the impact of the sequester on the nearly $7 billion National Science Foundation (NSF) budget, but with a caveat, introduced by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) in an amendment to the appropriation bill. The caveat requires that the NSF not award any of the roughly $10 million allocated for political-science research unless the director of NSF details, on an award-by-award basis, how such research will “promot[e] national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

During back-to-back hearings on the President’s 2014 budget request and the 2014 NSF budget request, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the new Chair of the House Science Committee, advocated that a similar test be applied to all NSF-funded research, proposing that justification be provided for how each project will “directly benefit the American people.” Smith has defended his proposal, detailed in a draft copy of the High Quality Research Act, as an exercise in legislative oversight of the executive branch and an effort to ensure better allocation of funds, given the shrinking federal budget.

The draft legislation would require that the director of NSF publically certify that every award supports research that is (1) “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,” (2) “the finest quality…ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large,” and (3) “not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

The current process allocates funds based on the results of anonymous peer review which rates proposals on both “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts” on the scientific community and society. Smith has suggested that the High Quality Research Act “maintains the current peer review process and improves on it by adding a layer of accountability.”

The problems with the requirements proposed in the High Quality Research Act are legion: the inherent ambiguity in defining and evaluating the proposed metrics, the imposition of an unrealistically large administrative burden of the director of NSF with no clear means of allowable delegation, and the demonstrated lack of understanding of the scientific process. But shouldn’t citizens find in the proposal an admirable, if somewhat misguided, effort at appropriate exercise of fiduciary stewardship by elected officials? In future articles I will argue we should reject this effort on principled grounds, but consider here a single argument.  

In many areas of governance, conservatives such as Coburn and Smith have rightly resisted excessive centralized control. They recognize, along with Christian political thinkers, the limited ability of human planners to foresee and select among outcomes, particularly given the corruption of the human intellect by sin. This mode of thinking has held firm with the rise of the current form of Republican populism, at least with respect to free markets and the general principle of devolution. Science funding, however, stands as a notable exception. As Kenneth Prewitt noted in an editorial published in Science, “[m]embers of Congress who believe that the executive branch should not try to pick winners and losers in the market economy should certainly realize that the legislative branch should not try to pick winners and losers in science.” Peer review is the market economy of science, imperfect and inefficient, but the best extant means of making allocations.

A complex sociology of broken trust underlies the discrepancy in the present posture of certain conservatives toward science; they identify science both with academe (in which many individuals are foreign-born and espouse views that differ significantly from median attitudes) and with a “priestly voice” of authority during the modern era. All of this seems to stand in opposition to the needs and concerns of the “common folk.”  Thus, insisting that research “benefit Americans” reframes ceding control to a central authority as a populist move that serves the interests of the common folk. This should seem familiar: from Mao to Chávez, appeals to the interests of “the people” have been justification for consolidation of power. A right view of government requires more than this.

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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