By way of Jonathan Eisen, we learn that there is a new bill wending its way through Congress, H.R. 3433, The Grant Reform and New Transparency Act of 2011 (pdf), the goal of which is “to provide transparency and require certain standards in the award of Federal grants, and for other purposes.” Who’s against transparency? Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and all that. Standards are good too. There are parts of this bill that are good: I think anonymous reviews should be publicly released with the grant information. The problem is that, as far as I can tell, specific reviewers will tied to specific reviews.
While I don’t know if other agencies are as transparent, as someone who receives his funding from NIH, the bill is essentially redundant in terms of transparency and standards. The two key paragraphs of the legislation are in Sections 7404 part (d) (2) (E-F):
(E) DISCLOSURE OF PEER REVIEWERS.— 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.
Since NIH already makes the list of the permanent panel members available (although they may have never read anything more than the grant summary and the reviewer comments*), this, again, isn’t anything different. But the next section is a doozy (boldface mine):
(F) DISCLOSURE OF OTHER GRANT REVIEWERS.—The name, title, and employer of each individual who served as a reviewer (other than a peer reviewer) of proposals or applications for the grant, regardless of whether the individual is employed by the Federal government or not.
This is actually really piss poor legislative writing. Note that, in section F, reviewers are tied to grants–and nowhere in the legislation is the distinction between peer reviewers and other reviewers defined (it’s mentioned in 7401 (6), but the terms are never defined). While NIH refers to its reviewers as part of the “peer review process”, reviewers judge proposals based on “merit.” NSF, as far as I can tell, doesn’t refer to “peer reviewers” at all, and describes its process as ‘merit-based review.’ And this legislative ambiguity creates a real problem, since it could mean that any reviewer would be tied to a grant award or rejection.
It would be very easy to intimidate reviewers who shot down politically-favored yet scientifically-dubious proposals. Not just through Congressional subpoenas (which require time and legal fees by the reviewers), but also through public campaigns of intimidation (let’s remember that more than one proponent of human-mediated global warming has been subjected to death threats). Just ask Michael Mann how this works. Likewise, politically incorrect fields, such as examining sexual orientation, drug addiction, global warming, or evolution–to name but a few–would also be targeted the same way.
There’s a benign interpretation of this legislation: some researchers with an interesting idea submitted a proposal, didn’t get it funded, and they want to know why. Hell, every year in Science or Nature, there’s an article by someone complaining about receiving great scores from reviewers and not getting the grant award. After all, co-sponsor Republican Congressman Lankford stated:
This legislation will bring transparency to the $50 billion annual discretionary and federal grant programs. During a time of massive budget deficits, members of both parties came together today to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent in a wise and accountable manner. The current process is too complex and operates with little transparency. With the federal government offering 1,670 grant programs annually, it should be required that the agencies leading these programs clearly disclose how grants are evaluated and awarded. This will help bring fairness for applicants going through the grant process and give taxpayers a greater level of transparency concerning how their tax dollars are spent.
A less-benign option is that some global warming denialist didn’t get funded, and now Republicans want to engage in a witch hunt. Because the very same Rep. Lankford has also said, “This whole global warming myth will be exposed as what it really is — a way of control more than anything else. And that generation will be ticked.”
In light of the Republican War on Science (and somebody once wrote a book by that name), how could one possibly assume that the Republicans are honest players here (and to the Democrats’ credit, they wanted to strip the identification of reviewers from the bill)? Remember former Republican governor Sarah Palin’s ranting about fly research? The blowup over shrimp on a treadmill (
and Snakes on a Plane)? Coburn’s witch hunt against the NSF? All the opposition to work that deals with drug addiction or homosexuality? The opposition to research about HIV transmission? Or anything to do with sociology? You’re a fool, based on that record, if you believe that Republicans are being honest players when they talk about ‘transparency.’ There’s a legitimate prior expectation (to get all Bayesian) of Republican shenanigans.
They want to kill many legitimate lines of scientific inquiry. Because they don’t just disagree, they deny. And denialists, since they believe that what they oppose is illegitimate, will do anything, regardless of the costs. Once names are linked to reviews of politically incorrect proposals, the ensuing harassment will make what happened to Michael Mann look normal. The Fox ‘News’ Wurlitzer will kick in, reviewers will be subpoenaed and harassed, simply for doing their jobs (which are essentially volunteer**, by the way). So reviewers–the ones who decide to continue to review–will be very skittish. And it won’t just be reviewers. Program officers, and, at NIH, the Council members, who technically are the ones who approve grant awards***, will be under the same scrutiny. Which, by the way, not only subjects them to pressure, but leaves open the possibility of corruption: if you approve or shoot down the ‘right’ proposals, there might be a sinecure for you when you leave NIH. Because that would never happen in Washington.
As long as reviewers can be politically targeted, we will start having politically ‘correct’ grant awards. There’s nothing wrong with releasing the reviews, but we need to protect the reviewers from political interference–that’s what has made U.S. science successful.
Keep them anonymous.
*There are lots of reviewers on a review panel. Only a few (usually three) read the proposal and make detailed written comments, with a slightly larger subset reading, but not writing comments. The larger group typically reads the grant proposal and the reviewer comments.
**There’s a small stipend. It’s not commensurate to the effort.
***The reviewers technically don’t approve awards, merely pass on recommendations to the program officer. The actual decision is made by a higher body.