House Science Subcommittee Hearing on NSF’s Merit Review Process

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Publication date: 
7 September 2011

“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.