Posted on behalf of Beth Mole
In a brief 15-minute speech today, US President Barack Obama championed independence for the peer-review process, in front of an audience of elite researchers at the 150th annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC.
“In order for us to maintain our edge, we’ve got to protect our rigorous peer review system,” Obama said.
His support comes on the heels of draft legislation, dated 18 April, that ScienceInsider reports is being discussed by the chairman of the US House of Representatives Science Committee, Lamar Smith (Republican, Texas). That legislation would overhaul peer review of grants submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and require the NSF director to certify each funded project as benefitting the economic or public health of the United States.
The effort by Smith follows a stream of recent attacks on science funding and the peer-review system, including legislation in the 2013 spending bill from Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican, that requires the NSF director to certify that all funded political-science research is crucial to national security or the US economy.
Without directly referencing the new legislation, President Obama spoke of maintaining the NSF’s control over social-science grants. “One of the things that I’ve tried to do over these last four years, and will continue to do over the next four years, is to make sure that we are promoting the integrity of our scientific process,” he said. “Not just in the physical and life sciences, but in psychology and anthropology and economics and political science, all of which are sciences,” he said.
Allowing politicians to be involved in scientific decisions is a “disastrous” idea, says Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences. He adds that it’s ironic that proponents of the changes want the government involved in picking winners and losers in science when they don’t want it involved in the economy.
Akkihebbal Ravishankara, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, agrees that the grant process ought to remain independent. “The thing that would be really nice is if we could make science apolitical,” he says.