Congress Exploring New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants

June 5, 2013 at 1:00 am 8 comments

Having Congress trying to invent new criteria for judging NSF grants is concerning, but most especially because US Congressional representatives rarely have science or engineering backgrounds.  Isn’t having Congress rethinking NSF reviewing criteria like having dancers reviewing farmer’s seeding practices, or having scientists working on water polo rules?

This idea was particularly well said in this letter from Eddie Bernice Johnson (thanks to Brian Dorn for pointing it out to me): “Interventions in grant awards by political figures with agenda, biases, and no expertise is the antithesis of the peer review process.”

In effect, the proposed bill would force NSF to adopt three criteria in judging every grant. Specifically, the draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s Web site, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) “… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

via U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants – ScienceInsider.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Klappholz  |  June 5, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Re ” US Congressional representatives rarely have science or engineering backgrounds:” And, from what I’ve read, in China, which is competing with us for dominance in science and engineering, it’s just the opposite.

  • 2. alanone1  |  June 5, 2013 at 10:07 am

    This is the compound fracture for what already is a broken leg.

    AAAS Fellows have been “fiercely involved” in this since the movement transpired.

    However, the governmental wedge has been slowly driven in to the detriment of all since the Mansfield Amendment and the concomitant transformation of ARPA to DARPA, “Proxmire-isms”, etc.

    I’m guessing that the voting public will not react enough to change this course …

  • 3. Dennis J Frailey  |  June 5, 2013 at 11:53 am

    i certainly don’t want congress meddling in the process, although it seems to be reasonable for them to establish broad objectives. But let’s not forget that the existing process is far from perfect. I was once involved in a review of the process by which NSF grants are awarded and found disturbing problems that still seem to persist, despite valiant attempts by the NSF to deal with them. These problems stem from the fact that those who review NSF proposals sometimes tend to do a less than thorough job (after all, they aren’t compensated and they have their “real work” to do). The most serious consequence I found was a tendency for the system to continue rewarding the well established researchers, regardless of the merits of their proposals, and to make it difficult for truly innovative but less-well-known researchers to break through and get funding.

    Those who study human nature will tell you that any human system tends to behave like this – protect the existing structure/participants and make it difficult for outsiders to enter. The best solution I know of is “Business Process Re-Engineering”, a topic that had some vogue a few years ago. It requires strong leadership and a willingness to upset the apple cart now and then.

  • 4. pbuniger  |  June 5, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    Reblogged this on iAMSTEM HUB . UC DAVIS.

  • 5. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 5, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    I’d like to see a major change in a different direction: grad students being funded by 5-year NSF Fellowships rather than off of research grants. I’d like to see over half of NSF funding going to fellowships rather than grants.

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  June 5, 2013 at 8:04 pm

      My experience is somewhat similar to Dennis. I’ve observed (informally/anecdotally) that NSF Fellows tend to take longer to graduate, because they use more time in graduate school to explore, and that costs them in time in establishing a relationship with an advisor and figuring out what it takes to complete a dissertation and graduate. I’d love to see some real data on this — do NSF Graduate Fellows take longer to graduate on average than those (with similar preparation) who don’t win one?

      • 7. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 5, 2013 at 8:21 pm

        Well, I’m not a good example of timely completion, as I spent 3 years as an NSF Fellow, 1 year as TA/RA, then 4 years as a Hertz Fellow. During the 8 years I changed departments, worked on many different projects, and ended up with an official adviser only in my 8th year, to “supervise” a project that I had worked on with another grad student (another Hertz Fellow). The project was quite successful, though the thesis part of it was a throw-away part that was not worth publishing. (There was one cool NP-hardness proof reducing a routing problem to 3-SAT that was done almost entirely with pictures, but by then NP-hardness proofs were essentially unpublishable.)

  • 8. Dennis J Frailey  |  June 5, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    I’m not sure about half, but there is some merit to this idea. When I was a graduate student I benefited from a 3-year fellowship that enabled me to make substantial progress on my doctoral dissertation without having to become slave labor for some faculty member. This had both good and bad consequences. Good was the fact that I could do the research I wanted, at a relatively brisk pace, Bad was the fact that I didn’t learn “the ropes” of the research publication and funding process and had to learn this after I became a faculty member on my own. In my particular case, that was probably for the best because I was a computer science graduate student at a time when almost none of the faculty had computer science backgrounds and they would have forced me to do a math dissertation.


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