Based on my review of NSF-funded studies, I have concerns regarding some grants approved by the Foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF's "intellectual merit" guideline. - Lamar Smith
In recent weeks Lamar Smith, the Christian Scientist chairman of the House committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has made overtures about changing the guidelines for NSF funding. Alongside his effort is the famed creator of the "Coburn Omnibus", Sen. Tom Coburn, who recently appended to the Ongoing Appropriations Bill an amendment which asks that the NSF avoid funding political science research unless it can be demonstrated that it:
"promot[es] national security or the economic interests of the United States."
A major push for fiscally conservative Republican lawmakers has typically been to limit the spending of federal resources on "pet projects", the so-called "pork-barrel spending" which was a major issue during the 2008 presidential election. While the amount of effort expended on this front waxes and wanes with the political cycle, it is rare that this extends to the realm of scientific research.
To be sure, political oversight over grant proposals is a dangerous game. Already there exists a bureaucracy designed to establish the merits of scientific work (the NSF), which is "staffed" by scientists and researchers, not politicians with shaky scientific understanding, bent to the whim of political favor and the election cycle.
There are holes in peer review at times. Cora Marret, who is the head of the NSF, admitted as much. This still begs the question:
What is the meaning of peer review when the peer (Smith) is a lawyer? Or an obstetrician (Coburn)? Or any politician, for that matter?
In a Nature correspondence which fortuitously came out this week, Thomas Decoursey discussed the role that politically unimportant research has on society:
... big problems faced by humankind ... can be solved only by science and technology, irrespective of profit motives.
Presumably "profit" can be extended to include "national defense" and "health" as well. The dissenting viewpoint (which prompted Decoursey's argument) is worth reading as well.
Oceanographer, Mathemagician, and Interested Party