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House Committee Passes Bill Requiring Disclosure of Peer Reviewers

Richard M. Jones
Number 143 - December 2, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has passed a bill requiring the disclosure of peer reviewers.  H.R. 3433, the “Grant Reform and New Transparency Act of 2011” or the GRANT Act was introduced by Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) on November 16, and was passed by the committee the next day.  Lankford is the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform.  Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is an original cosponsor.

As introduced in the House, the 21-page bill has the following language in a section entitled Website relating to Federal grants:

“REQUIREMENT -- The Director of the Office of Management and Budget shall upgrade any existing or proposed public website for finding Federal grant opportunities and applying for such grants so that such website may serve as a central point of information and provide full access for applicants for competitive grants. The website shall capture in one site, or provide electronic links to, other relevant databases.”

Later, under GRANT AWARD INFORMATION, is the following provision:

“DISCLOSURE OF PEER REVIEWERS -- The name, title, and employer of each individual who served as a peer reviewer for the grant program concerned, during the six-month period preceding the award of the grant.”

And:

“DISCLOSURE OF OTHER GRANT REVIEWERS -- The name, title, and employer of each individual who served as a reviewer (other than a peer reviewer) of proposals or applications for the grant, regardless of whether the individual is employed by the Federal government or not”

During the committee’s November 17 consideration or markup of the bill, Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) offered an amendment to strike the above language on “Disclosure of Peer Reviewers.”  The committee agreed to his amendment by voice vote.

However, Lankford later won approval of an amendment that struck down the Cummings amendment.   The Lankford amendment also inserted the words “or unique identifier” after “name.”  All other “Disclosure of Peer Reviewers” language was retained as shown above.

In a statement issued after the committee's passage of H.R. 3433 by voice vote, Lankford stated:

“This legislation will bring transparency to the $50 billion annual discretionary and federal grant programs.  During a time of massive budget deficits, members of both parties came together today to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent in a wise and accountable manner.  The current process is too complex and operates with little transparency. With the federal government offering 1,670 grant programs annually, it should be required that the agencies leading these programs clearly disclose how grants are evaluated and awarded. This will help bring fairness for applicants going through the grant process and give taxpayers a greater level of transparency concerning how their tax dollars are spent.”

Touching on these same points in his opening remarks at the markup, Chairman Issa said the bill was a long overdue reform that would create a “more transparent and accountable federal government.”  The merit review process is often “impenetrable and opaque,” he said, adding that H.R. 3433 “lifts the veil of secrecy” to help determine if federal grants are awarded purely on merit, or for political considerations.  Lankford’s remarks echoed many of these points, saying that the bill’s provisions would enable unsuccessful applicants for a federal grant to determine if “the deck is stacked against them in favor of the big guys.”  “This bill covers a lot of ground” he stated, and would cover grants for programs ranging from assisting victims of domestic violence to “cutting-edge research.”  Lankford said that committee staff had consulted with the Office of Management and Budget, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and DARPA in developing the bill, and also with organizations representing research universities.  “We worked with these groups and will continue to do so,” he said.  Lankford also stated that the bill does not compromise academic freedom or dampen innovative research.

In response to the committee's action, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the Council on Government Relations sent a letter to Issa and Lankford. (http://aau.edu/)  The opening paragraph of this November 28 letter states:

“On behalf of the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the Council on Governmental Relations, we write to express our concerns about HR 3433, the Grant Reform and New Transparency (GRANT) Act of 2011, and its potential adverse effects on scientific research and our nation’s innovation system. Together, our associations represent the leading U.S. research universities, which receive nearly half of all competitively awarded federal grants, more than any other sector. We have appreciated the opportunity to comment on early drafts of the bill; however, in its current form, we would oppose the legislation if the full House were to consider the bill. We urge you to make changes to this legislation along the lines we outline below.”

The two-page letter later continues:

“Accountability for - including the transparency of - competitively awarded federal research grants is very robust. Consequently, we do not understand the need for this legislation as it pertains to competitively awarded federal research grants. It may be that greater accountability is needed for federal grants other than those for scientific research; however, the one-size-fits-all approach to transparency in the legislation would have unintended and detrimental consequences to our nation’s basic research enterprise if the bill becomes law.”

The letter describes five major areas of concern in the section on Grant Award Information.  Regarding peer reviewers, the letter explains:

“DISCLOSURE OF PEER REVIEWERS -- We remain very concerned about this element of the bill. Anonymity in the peer review process for reviewing scientific and other academic grant proposals has served science and our nation very well over the past several decades. Anonymity in the process permits greater candor in the evaluation of grant applications and thereby, contributes to a higher quality of review than would otherwise occur if the names of peer reviewers related to a specific application were known. The promise of anonymity is also helpful in recruiting volunteer peer reviewers. We recognize that the Committee-approved bill provides for some degree of anonymity; however, because some disciplines are so small, true anonymity may not be possible. As such, we believe that the downsides of disclosure outweigh the potential benefits, and that this provision should be eliminated.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095