U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R–KY). Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

By Jeffrey Mervis
19 October 2017

(Science) – Senate Republicans have launched a new attack on peer review by proposing changes to how the U.S. government funds basic research.

New legislation introduced this week by Senator Rand Paul (R–KY) would fundamentally alter how grant proposals are reviewed at every federal agency by adding public members with no expertise in the research being vetted. The bill (S.1973) would eliminate the current in-house watchdog office within the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, and replace it with an entity that would randomly examine proposals chosen for funding to make sure the research will “deliver value to the taxpayer.” The legislation also calls for all federal grant applications to be made public.

Paul made his case for the bill yesterday as chairperson of a Senate panel with oversight over federal spending. The hearing, titled “Broken Beakers: Federal Support for Research,” was a platform for Paul’s claim that there’s a lot of “silly research” the government has no business funding. Paul poked fun at several grants funded by NSF—a time-honored practice going back at least 40 years, to Senator William Proxmire (D–WI) and his “Golden Fleece” awards—and complained that the problem is not “how does this happen, but why does it continue to happen?”

Paul’s proposed solution starts with adding two members who have no vested interest in the proposed research to every federal panel that reviews grant applications. One would be an “expert … in a field unrelated to the research” being proposed, according to the bill. Their presence, Paul explained, would add an independent voice capable of judging which fields are most worthy of funding. The second addition would be a “taxpayer advocate,” someone who Paul says can weigh the value of the research to society.

That provision would apply to every federal agency that awards competitive research grants. But another portion of the bill would affect only NSF, specifically, its Office of Inspector General. That quasi-independent office now investigates waste, fraud, and abuse of NSF funds, as well as investigating allegations of research misconduct.

Paul’s bill would transfer its authority—as well as its budget and staff—to a new Office of the Inspector General and Taxpayer Advocate for Research. Its job would be to comb through NSF’s portfolio of top-rated proposals and chose a “random” sample to determine “if the research will deliver value to the taxpayer.” The office would also have veto power; that is, no proposal that it finds wanting could be funded by NSF. […]

The top Democrat on the panel, Senator Gary Peters (D–MI), defended both the way government funds research and the value of that research. The co-sponsor of a 2017 law that gave NSF a vote of confidence, Peters acknowledged that no system is perfect, but suggested that his colleagues were missing the bigger picture.

“While certain basic research projects that receive federal funding certainly have silly-sounding titles, further examination may reveal the true scientific merit and potential broader impacts of the work,” Peters said. “Rather than inject politics into this process, our discussion today should instead concentrate on how to safeguard the often unexpected process of discovery inherent in scientific inquiry, while ensuring that federal dollars spent on research remains completely and fully accountable taxpayers.” [more]

Rand Paul takes a poke at U.S. peer-review panels

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