In the ongoing struggle between the Representative of the 21st District of Texas, Lamar Smith, and all that is holy about the peer review grant process, the battle lines are getting clearer.
Yesterday, it was reported that NSF Director Cora Marrett declined to hand over the peer review comments of five awarded grants, on the grounds that anonymity was key to the grant review process and that giving them up would be an act of bad faith. The Congressman has been arguing that there may be some realms of science, (or as he would say, "science"), that are beyond the scope of the taxpayer-funded foundation mandate. In response to Director Marrett's decision, the Congressman was reportedly "disappointed", (which translates politically into "ticked").
The gut reaction of the scientific establishment to the request of Lamar Smith has been fairly uniform. It can be politely summed up as "tell that politician to keep his nose out of scientific peer review", but the actual sentiment would probably be worded more strongly. The argument of the establishment is that politicians are not qualified to review science and make judgments on what would be considered a good and worthwhile proposal, and that if they try to interfere with the evaluation process of scientific investigations, the gunky stench of political meddling would be too hard to wash out. Of course, this response is the result of a long and frayed history of the politics-science relationship. They add to that the old slogan, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," meaning that not only is the Congressman meddling where he shouldn't, he's meddling with a machine that has been tried and tested and is working just fine.
The catch is that, as I understand it, the grants that Congressman Smith is targeting are in the field of social science, specifically political science. It may just be the opinion of the writer, but I think that fact may lesson the strength of the gut reaction of those scientists who consider themselves of the more ancient and noble scientific ilks.
However, the NSF considers social and political sciences as sciences. The point was argued the at the annual AAAS Science and Technology Forum two weeks ago in a session on the 2014 budget by John Holdren, the Director of the White House Science and Policy office. The gist of his argument was that, if it passes the test of use of the scientific method, of rational testing, it is science, it is useful, and will tell the public things that will benefit them.
Clouding the issue further are the ongoing arguments among scientists about whether or not peer reviewed actually should be anonymous. To be fair, some of those arguing for more openness are disgruntled grant and paper rejectees who want to know who to lambaste, but others are not. And if it should be open, then maybe the Congressman has something of a point, grubby political hands notwithstanding. Maybe the lines being drawn need to be drawn a little more cleanly.
Drawing The Line With Congress