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Differing Criteria

Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is drafting a bill to change how the National Science Foundation chooses which research to fund, ScienceInsider reports. Smith is the new chair of the US House of Representatives' science committee.

President Barack Obama, though, said in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences that he would work to "make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process," the Huffington Post adds.

This draft bill, entitled the High Quality Research Act, "represents the latest — and bluntest — attack on NSF by congressional Republicans seeking to halt what they believe is frivolous and wasteful research being funded in the social sciences," ScienceInsider says, adding that the bill would be applicable across the disciplines NSF funds.

The draft version of the legislation that ScienceInsider obtained would have NSF certify that studies it funds meet three criteria: that they "advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare" of the US or its defense; be of high quality and address questions of societal importance; and not duplicate another study funded by any federal agency. Smith's legislation also indicates that such guidelines could later be applied to other science agencies.

Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline calls this a "dumb" idea and that such certification would be "silly grandstanding."

"Research, though, does not and cannot follow these guidelines. A lot of stuff gets looked into that doesn't work out, and a lot of things that do work out don't look like they're ever going to be of much use for anything," he adds. "We are not smart enough to put bets down on only the really important stuff up front."

Rhett Allain at Dot Physics echoes that thought, giving the example of the laser. "Do you think when people started playing with lasers they had the DVD player in mind? No. You get these awesome things by funding basic research."

Allain adds that he would also welcome duplicated projects as they can help determine whether a finding is real.

Smith also asked NSF to provide him with more information regarding five NSF grants, including reviewer comments and notes from the program officer, ScienceInsider adds. He wrote in a letter to Cora Marrett, the acting NSF director, that he had "concerns regarding some grants approved by the Foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF's 'intellectual merit' guideline."

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the ranking Democrat on the science committee, cautioned Smith against interfering with the peer-review process. "The moment you compromise both the merit review process and the basic research mission of NSF is the moment you undo everything that has enabled NSF to contribute so profoundly to our national health, prosperity, and welfare," she wrote in a letter.

Similarly, Obama said in his NAS speech that the peer-review system had to be independent. "In order for us to maintain our edge, we've got to protect our rigorous peer review system," he said, according to the Nature News blog.