Peer review at the National Science Foundation has been the focus of recent inquiries from the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology committee. Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, had requested the notes of the peer reviewers and program officers pertaining to five grants awarded by the NSF. In a letter to NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett, Smith said he had “concerns regarding some grants approved by the Foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF’s ‘intellectual merit’ guideline.” President Obama, White House officials, House Democrats and scientific societies all spoke out against Smith’s requests for the confidential peer review documents.
Yesterday, Marrett sent a letter to Smith refusing his request for the peer-review documents. The reason behind the refusal was the need to safeguard the confidentiality of the entire peer-review process. Smith said he was “disappointed” at the refusal, but he indicated that the discussion about peer review at NSF is not over.
The ASBMB staunchly defends the peer-review process. Check back next week for updates on how the society has made its voice heard on Capitol Hill with regard to the ongoing debate over peer review.
As the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies come to grips with sequestration, there is news that some agencies may get a reprieve. In April, the Federal Aviation Administration began furloughing air traffic controllers, causing significant flight delays. This public display of the effects of sequestration caused Congress to rapidly pass a bill that allowed the Secretary of Transportation to divert $250 million to the FAA to prevent further furloughs.
While President Obama approved of the FAA fix, he has stated that he has little appetite for similar fixes to other federal agencies. Nevertheless, members of both chambers and parties have already filed bills to restore funding to specific federal programs, including the NIH, Head Start and a variety of other programs. It is not clear which, if any, of these bills will pass both houses of Congress, much less be signed into law by Obama.
The ASBMB does not favor a piecemeal approach to fixing sequestration. Federal funding for science research comes from several federal agencies, and exempting one agency from sequestration would not help scientists funded by other agencies. The ASBMB would prefer overturning sequestration altogether. Stay tuned to the Policy Blotter for more updates on sequestration.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chair of the House Science, Space and Technology committee has spurred two distinct, yet related, discussions regarding peer review and the National Science Foundation. First, in an April 25 letter to NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett, Smith wrote, “I have concerns regarding some grants approved by the Foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF’s ‘intellectual merit’ guideline.” Smith went on to request the notes from the peer reviewers and NSF program officers regarding five grants awarded by the agency. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, ranking member of the SST committee, wrote a fierce response and called Smith’s request, “the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF.” Since this exchange two weeks ago, fellow Democrats, former NSF directors and assistant directors and many scientific societies have joined Johnson in calling on Smith to rescind his letter. The deadline Smith gave Marrett to respond with the requested materials was May 9. Marrett has asked for a one-week extension.
The second track concerns the High Quality Research Act, a draft bill proposed by Smith. This act would require the NSF director to make a written statement that every grant funded by the agency will “advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense.” Proponents of this legislation claim it will improve peer review by ensuring that taxpayer dollars are used appropriately. Critics state that this legislation essentially asks the NSF director to predict the value of every grant issued by the agency. Just last week, a staff member of the Science, Space and Technology committee spoke to ScienceInsider about the bill. The staff member confirmed that Smith and others on the committee want to ensure a level of “accountability and thoughtfulness” in the funding decisions of the agency, which, they claim, will not affect the peer-review process. Nevertheless, the bill has met stiff resistance in Congress and the scientific community. Even the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren and President Obama have spoken out against Congressional intrusion into peer-review at NSF and other agencies. This bill, while troubling, is unlikely to become law.
The ASBMB supports Congress’ right to question the actions of federal agencies and demand accountability for how taxpayer money is spent. However, the recent events concerning peer review at NSF are troubling. Peer review is not perfect, and conversations have been started at the NSF and National Institutes of Health on ways to improve it. Yet these conversations are not represented in Smith’s bill, and it is not clear how the provisions in the bill would actually improve peer review without endangering important research. We will continue to monitor this story as it develops.
Yesterday, the National Institutes of Health released the budgets for each institute/center for the rest of fiscal 2013. The FY13 budget for NIH is $29.15 billion, down $1.7 billion from FY12, which incorporates the FY13 continuing resolution as well as the cuts from sequestration. The budgets of each of the 10 largest NIH institutes1, which account for ~75 percent of all NIH funds, were cut 5.6-5.7 percent, except for NIA which sustained a 7.3 percent cut. However, it is clear that, while NIH may have dictated the level of cut to the institutes, each institute was able to enact these cuts in the manner each saw fit. As examples of the independence of each institute, we look to Research Project Grants2 and Training3 grants.
- Research Project Grants: RPGs in total are being cut at every institute, however, the fine print shows very different strategies. NIGMS, NIDDK, NIMH, NICHD and NIDA are cutting back on funds for competing grants far more than for noncompeting continuations. NIGMS and NICHD are cutting competing grants by over 20 percent and are slightly increasing their noncompeting continuation funds, while NIDDK, NIMH and NIDA are cutting both pots of money, just more so on the competing side. On the other hand, NHLBI, NINDS and NIA are cutting noncompeting continuations in favor of competing grants with NIA increasing its allotment to the competing grant money pool by 9 percent. NCI and NIAID are cutting competing and noncompeting grants by roughly the same percentage.
- Training grants: NCI, NINDS and NIMH worked their budgets so that they are not cutting any training grants; NIAID, NHLBI, NIDDK and NICHD are cutting institutional training grants far more than individual training grants; and NIGMS, NIA and NIDA are cutting individual and institutional training grants by equivalent percentages.
What can we glean from these comparisons? Simply that each institute has different opinions on how to deal with the cuts caused by sequestration. Some institutes believe that it is more important to follow through on commitments made prior to FY13 and are maintaining funding for noncompeting continuations at the expense of competing grants, while others have the opposite take. In the same vein, some institutes believe that trainees on training grants should be spared the brunt of budget cuts while other institutes believe trainees should share the pain. The differences in approach are not restricted to RPGs and training grants, but they persist in all facets of the institutes’ budgets, including funding for research centers, intramural research, SBIR/STTR grants, etc.
The ASBMB has long been concerned about the effects of sequestration on individual researchers and trainees. Now, that we know the raw numbers for NIH institute budgets, we await the directors’ statements on the strategies behind the implementation of sequestration. As individual investigators await word of what this means for their grants, the varied strategies will likely cause confusion , especially for those funded by multiple institutes that each took different approaches to budget cuts. The ASBMB will continue to advocate for overturning the sequester and engage with NIH institute directors to clarify their strategies for implementing budget cuts while stressing the need to preserve funding for individual investigators. Stay tuned to the Policy Blotter as we follow up on this and other science funding issues.
1 The 10 largest NIH institutes by appropriations: NCI-National Cancer Institute, NIAID-National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NHLBI-National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, NIGMS-National Institute of General Medical Sciences, NIDDK-National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases, NINDS-National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NIMH-National Institute of Mental Health, NICHD-Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIA-National Institute on Aging, NIDA-National Institute on Drug Abuse
2 Research Project Grants are the most common types of grants and include the R01 and R21. Individual RPGs come in two flavors—competing grants and noncompeting continuations. Competing grants are new applications or renewals that are reviewed and scored by grant review committees. Noncompeting continuations fund the years subsequent to the original grant award. For example, if you have a 4-year R01 application awarded in 2013, it will be a competing grant in 2013 and a noncompeting continuation in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
3 NIH funds two types of training grants—individual training grants (F series) and institutional training grants (T series).
The past two weeks were tumultuous for the National Science Foundation thanks to two hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives, a pair of letters passed between high-ranking members of Congress, and a controversial new bill. Discussions between Congress and NSF centered on the peer-review process and a question, most commonly coming from Republican representatives and senators, of whether the federal government should fund social science research in difficult economic times.
On April 17, the full House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held two hearings. The first hearing was attended by Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren and focused on the budget requests for science-funding agencies in President Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget. The Republican members of the committee posed several questions to Holdren about the legitimacy of funding social science research and ways to improve peer review at NSF to avoid funding “frivolous” projects during difficult financial times. Holdren said that neither he nor any member of Congress was qualified to determine the merits of social science research, and he staunchly defended the peer-review process at the agency, saying at one point, “I think it’s a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding.”
Later that day, the House SST committee grilled acting NSF Director Cora Marrett and National Science Board Chairman Dan Arvizu over the FY14 budget request for the agency. Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, asked several questions about how peer review could be improved at NSF to ensure that the research funded by the agency is in the best interest of the American taxpayer. Arvizu and Marrett defended the criteria NSF uses for funding decisions, intellectual merit and broader impacts, and resisted the application of congressionally defined metrics to funding decisions.
The questioning of funding decisions by NSF continued after these hearings. In a letter to Marrett dated April 25, Smith wrote, “Based on my review of NSF-funded studies, I have concerns regarding some grants approved by the Foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF’s ‘intellectual merit’ guideline.” Smith named five grants as questionable, and he requested Marrett send the committee the scientific reviews of each grant as well as the program officer’s assessment. Smith gave Marrett two weeks to reply.
The next day, the ranking member of the House SST committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, sent a scathing reply to Smith’s letter. Johnson’s letter described Smith’s request of grant evaluation materials as, “the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process” at NSF. She also said that, in her two decades on the committee serving with six different chairmen, Smith’s intrusions on peer review were unprecedented and alarming. Finally, Johnson captured the concerns of the scientific community by writing to Smith, “you are sending a chilling message to the entire scientific community that peer review may always be trumped by political review.”
The High Quality Research Act
Meanwhile, the broader scientific community has become aware of a bill that has been circulating among the House SST staff. The High Quality Research Act, which has not yet been introduced in the House but which will probably be sponsored by Smith, would require the NSF director to guarantee that each grant funded by the agency:
- Advances the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and secures the national defense by promoting the progress of science
- Is the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of, utmost importance to society at large,
- And is not duplicative of other research funded by the agency.
The ASBMB position
The level of congressional oversight of peer review suggested by Smith in his letter to the NSF could have broad consequences for peer review and scientific progress. The ASBMB always has been a staunch defender of the peer-review process. Peer review is the best system to ensure that only meritorious research is rewarded. This system has been in place since the inception of the NSF, the National Institutes of Health and other federal funding agencies, and it is part of the reason the U.S. is the global leader in scientific research and innovation. Furthermore, the extra layers of internal review after the initial peer review ensure that the grants funded by federal agencies are of the highest caliber and conform to the agency’s mission. The peer review system is not broken.
The ASBMB strongly opposes any attempt by political entities to micromanage the funding portfolios of individual agencies or the peer-review process for two reasons. First, while we acknowledge that no system is perfect, peer-review is widely regarded as the most effective at determining meritorious grant applications. Congressional micromanagement would undermine peer review by redefining meritorious research as that which meets arbitrary standards defined by those with little understanding of the fields they are regulating. Second, the hallmark of the American research enterprise is a sense of unbound curiosity coupled with highly trained critical-thinking skills. Legislation that dictates what scientists can and cannot be curious about would erode and eventually destroy this enterprise. The idea that legislation that narrows the scope of the scientific endeavor can improve the peer review system and speed the discovery process shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the peer-review process and the nature of scientific inquiry.
The ASBMB is confident that the High Quality Research Act, while concerning, will never become law. Members of both parties in both houses understand the value of an unfettered peer-review process. However, the ASBMB is concerned about the thought processes behind the legislation. The very nature of scientific research makes knowing the outcome of proposed research an impossibility. The outcome of research cannot be guaranteed, and the benefits may be realized only years or decades after it was conducted. This does not mean the research is frivolous but merely a step on an unseen path to discovery. This holds true regardless of scientific discipline.
On its own and in conjunction with its allies in the Coalition for National Science Funding, the ASBMB is engaging members of the House Space, Science, and Technology committee, which has oversight of NSF activities, and the Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over NSF appropriations. Stay tuned to the Policy Blotter for more updates on this story.
UPDATE: Speaking at the National Academy of Sciences today, President Obama weighed in on the debate over peer review at NSF without directly referencing it. Obama said, “In order for us to maintain our edge, we’ve got to protect our rigorous peer review system.” He also said that we should make sure we are “promoting the integrity of the scientific process” in all disciplines, including the social sciences.
Science advocacy groups, such as the ASBMB, urge Congress to increase the budgets of the National Institutes of Health and other research-funding agencies to continue our national investment in groundbreaking research that will improve the public health and energize our economy. However, some members of Congress have begun to turn the tables suggesting that research funding agencies could fund more research if they were smarter with how they invested their money. The debate, though, is what qualifies as a smart investment.
At the beginning of March, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the chair of the appropriations subcommittee that sets the NIH budget, sent a letter to NIH Director Francis Collins expressing concern about several grants funded by the agency. The funding of these grants are purported to break rules against using federal grant money for lobbying efforts. The legislators argue that the NIH should act within the rules and use this grant money for funding research into various diseases. The larger argument behind this story, though, is whether the NIH or any other federal agency should be funding research into the social sciences. ASBMB has always opposed Congressional micromanagement of the funding portfolios of research-funding agencies, and surely the NIH will resist any additional Congressional oversight. However, since the line of questioning from Congress focuses on the rules governing the agency, the NIH must carefully toe the line between adhering to these rules and defending the funding of this research.
Recruiting and outreach activities from all parts of the government have received serious questions from Congress, and now the NIH’s communications activities have also drawn the attention of several House members. Three members of the Energy and Commerce: Health subcommittee, which has oversight of NIH activities, and two members of the appropriations subcommittee that sets the NIH budget have signed onto a letter asking Collins to investigate how much money each institute and center spends on communications and public relations. This request stems from a report suggesting the National Cancer Institute spends far more money on PR initiatives than any other institute at the NIH. The legislators again argue that agencies should divert these dollars toward disease-related research. The issue is not whether the NCI should have outreach programs, they are actually obligated to by law, but the amount of money spent on these efforts. ASBMB supports the outreach and education activities of NIH institutes and centers as they effectively disseminate information about the excellent work they are funding and the strides being made on behalf of the American taxpayer. We also support each institute and center finding its own balance between funding research and outreach activities, and we would oppose any Congressional micromanagement of spending of this sort at the NIH.
Stay tuned to the Policy Blotter to stay up to date on these and other stories concerning Congressional oversight of the NIH and other science policy issues.
President Obama released his fiscal 2014 budget request today. This document lays out his administration’s priorities over the next fiscal year. Should Obama get his wishes, most research funding agencies would see budget increases. The National Institutes of Health, specifically, would receive a $350-450 million increase in Obama’s budget. However, the budgets for each of the 27 institutes/centers at NIH are requested and appropriated independently meaning that some I/Cs will see larger increases than others. Let’s take a closer look at Obama’s request for the I/Cs of the NIH.
The largest increases under Obama’s FY14 budget request in real dollars went to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (+$96 million), the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (+$91 million), the National Institute of Aging (+$73 million) and the National Cancer Institute (+$63 million). While the budget report does not explicitly state what these extra funds will be used for, we can make some reasonable assumptions. The increase to the NIAID budget reflects a renewed commitment to HIV/AIDS research by the Obama administration. The addition to the NCATS budget will allow the center to begin its function as a national hub of drug development research. The bump to NIA will fulfill the administration’s commitment to ramping up Alzheimer’s research.
While most agencies would receive a funding increase in Obama’s FY14 budget, some agencies would be downsized. The National Institute for General Medical Sciences (-$25 million), the National Institute for Mental Health (-$12 million) and the National Eye Institute (-$2 million) were the only institutes to lose money relative to previous years. The reasons behind these reductions are not clear.
As we’ve stated before, Obama’s budget, as well as those of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, represent a vision for the direction of the country. None of these budgets are expected to become law, but these documents highlight the significant differences between the Republican and Democratic views on taxation and federal spending. The rest of the FY14 spending battles will take place among the Senate and House appropriations committees. Some subcommittee hearings have already occurred, but no bills have been written yet. Check back to the Policy Blotter to keep up with the FY14 appropriations hearings and bills.