AIP Takes Action on Bill Requiring Disclosure of Proposals and Peer Reviewers

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Publication date: 
24 February 2012

The  American Institute of Physics (AIP) along with 83 other organizations,  including four of its Member Societies: the American Association of Physics  Teachers, the American Astronomical Society, the American Geophysical Union, and  the Optical Society, signed a letter sent by the Coalition for National Science  Funding (CNSF) to every member in the House of Representatives regarding the  GRANT Act.   

AIP  also endorsed the letter sent by the American Physical Society to Rep. Darrell  Issa (R-CA), Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, regarding  the GRANT Act.   

The  GRANT Act, which requires the disclosure of peer reviewers, was passed by the  House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  The bill was introduced by Rep. James  Lankford (R-OK) on November 16, 2011 and was passed through the Committee on  November 17.  Lankford is the Chairman of  the Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations  and Procurement Reform.  Cosponsors of  this legislation include Chairman Issa, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), Rep. Patrick  Meehan (R-PA), and Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR).    

The CNSF  letter cites concerns with specific provisions in the GRANTS Act, including  those “that would require the posting of  a complete copy of a funded grant proposal to a new government-wide website.” 

The  CNSF letter lays out the following reasons for this concern:

“Granting agencies,  such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), receive proposals in confidence  and protect the often proprietary nature of their contents. Reviewers are  obligated to maintain the confidentiality of the proposal being reviewed and  the review itself. Requiring a complete copy of a funded grant proposal to be  available on a public website would seriously limit the ability of grant  recipients to reap benefits from their own research. A proposal can contain intellectual  property of the researcher and the institution that employs the researcher. The  ideas and directions of research outlined are, in most cases, based on years of  work. These ideas can also be the basis for other research performed by the  proposer, including research that may not be funded by the federal government.”

The  APS letter, endorsed by AIP, raises two specific concerns regarding provisions  in the GRANT Act relating to posting requirements: 

“The  first – which would require an agency to publicly post in its entirety every  application it has acted upon favorably within 15 days after it has notified  the recipient – could compromise any unpublished intellectual property  contained in the proposal, robbing the recipient of possible scientific and  entrepreneurial benefit

“The  second – which would require the public posting of 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’  – would severely inhibit peer review if the  name of the reviewer and a given grant are clearly linked. The science  community from time to time has examined the virtue of removing anonymity from  the peer-review procedure and has consistently concluded that revealing names  of reviewers would cripple the process. Without anonymity, many researchers  will not agree to review proposals at all, or should they agree to do so, they  would be much less candid or openly critical of any proposed research, greatly  compromising the utility of the peer-review practice.”

The  CNSF letter also expresses concerns regarding patent applications:

“Posting grant applications  will jeopardize researchers’ patent opportunities thereby reducing incentives  for technology transfer. Additionally, the public posting of U.S. researchers’  ideas would enable competitors (including foreign scientists and industries) to  steal cutting-edge American intellectual property – eroding our ability to stay  at the forefront in critical scientific and engineering fields and of  commercial production.” 

Regarding  the disclosure of peer reviewers, the letter expresses the following views of  CNSF:

“We also oppose  disclosure of peer reviewers, either by name or unique identifier. As written,  the provision would allow identification of peer reviewers at the individual  grant level in areas of research in which there are small numbers of scientists  and engineers. An important characteristic of the current peer-review process  is the anonymity of the reviewers. This process has helped to foster many  seminal discoveries throughout all science, engineering, and mathematics  disciplines and has contributed to the development of a significant cadre of  first rate researchers in all disciplines. The success of the peer-review  process depends on the willingness of qualified reviewers to be candid and  critical as needed in the evaluation of research proposals and, in fact,  without the anonymity provided in the current process, many researchers would  not be willing to review proposals.” 

The  CNSF letter does offer a recommendation that agencies require the posting of  abstracts of funded proposals to the website and states that “this would protect the intellectual  property while providing useful information about the research to the  taxpayers.” 

The CNSF letter concludes that though increased  transparency and accountability are worthy goals, the grants process is  currently very accountable and transparent.   But closes with this statement: “H.R.  3433 would disrupt this balance and ultimately be detrimental to the U.S.  science and engineering research enterprise.”

The  full text of the CNSF letter will soon be available here.

A previous  FYI on the GRANTS Act can be found here.

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