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House Science Subcommittee Hearing on NSF’s Merit Review Process

Richard M. Jones
Number 106 - September 7, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“In exercising its oversight role, this Subcommittee must ensure that federal dollars are being spent on the best science.” – Chairman Mo Brooks

Before the start of the congressional summer recess, the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held an upbeat hearing centering on the National Science Foundation’s merit review process.  Members of the subcommittee and the four witnesses agreed that the foundation’s system has produced admirable results, with its merit review process being described as “the gold standard” by a committee member and a witness.
The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL); Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) is the Ranking Member.  There were few differences in the nature of their opening statements or questioning of the witnesses about NSF’s procedures.  Both representatives spoke of the importance of ensuring that the foundation’s merit review process continues to be effective in identifying the best research proposals and were interested in knowing if improvements are needed.  “It is our goal to highlight the benefits of the process, while acknowledging that no process involving human decision-making is flawless,” said Brooks.  Lipinski agreed, stating it was the subcommittee’s job “to hold hearings such as this one to discuss these challenges and collectively imagine how we might continue to make NSF, and the merit-review system that it manages, even stronger.  Particularly in this tight budgetary environment it is incumbent upon us all to make sure that the system for funding excellent science is as efficient and effective as possible.”

Deputy Director Cora Marrett testified for the National Science Foundation.  Marrett stressed that the foundation is continually reviewing its procedures, describing the merit review process and the important role that program officers play in recommending the awarding of grants when  there is not enough money to fund every worthy proposal.  She highlighted the stability and the transparency of the foundation’s selection process, describing it as “robust, rigorous, and beyond reproach.”

Also testifying were Nancy Jackson, President of the American Chemical Society; Keith Yamamoto, Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of California at San Francisco; and Jorge Jose, Vice President for Research at Indiana University.  Each praised the foundation’s use of the merit review process, while offering recommendations to improve it.  Jackson, citing the foundation’s steadily increasing workload, suggested that program officers be given the opportunity “to remove any proposals from the very bottom of the pile from [further] consideration.”   She spoke of the importance of balancing the foundation’s research portfolio to ensure that it not become too conservative, and recommended that NSF develop metrics to evaluate the success of its investments.    

In his testimony, Jose highlighted the notable success the foundation’s selection process has demonstrated during the last sixty years, saying “the merit review system is the most effective process we have for ensuring that federal funds are used most effectively in support of scientific research.”  He expressed “some cause for concern” about the effect “an expanded list of broader impact criteria for NSF proposals” might have on the foundation’s leadership role in promoting the participation of underrepresented groups.  Jose also discussed the importance of the foundation’s support for transformative research. Yamamoto also expressed concern about proposed changes to the broader impacts criteria as it might affect the merit review process.  He agreed that “broader national goals are essential,” and contended they should be advanced by the “composite federally funded scientific research endeavor,” and not mandated for individual NSF research grant applications. 

Also discussed during this hearing was an overriding problem for the foundation and researchers: the availability of federal funding.  As outlined in the hearing charter, in FY 2010 the foundation was able to fund 68 percent of those proposals that received an “excellent” rating and 42 percent of the proposals that received a “very good to excellent” rating.

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics