Apparently NSF Grant Applicants Still Allergic To Broader Impacts

The Consortium of Social Science Associations held its Annual Colloquium on Social And Behavioral Sciences and Public Policy earlier this week.  Amongst the speakers was Acting National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Cora Marrett.* As part of her remarks, she addressed how the Foundation was implementing the Coburn Amendment, which added additional criteria to funding political science research projects through NSF.

The first batch of reviews subject to these new requirements tookplace in early 2013.  In addition to the usual criteria of intellectual merit and broader impacts, the reviewers looked at the ‘most meritorious’ proposals and examined how they contribute to economic development and/or national security.  For the reviews scheduled for early 2014, all three ‘criteria’ will be reviewed at once.

Since researchers don’t like to be told what to do, they aren’t happy.  But Marrett asserts through her remarks that this additional review will not really affect the outcomes of the program.  From Jeffrey Mervis’ reporting in the Science piece, the research community doesn’t think so, and I suspect Senator Coburn (if he pays attention) wouldn’t be happy to see no change based on his new requirements.

But I’m reminded that the Foundation had the opportunity to embrace the coming changes (it’s unlikely that other fields won’t eventually be subjected to Coburn-like fiats from Congress) when the 2010 COMPETES reauthorization process encouraged a new look at expert review.  In a statement of goals for broader impacts from the House Science and Technology Committee, both economic competitiveness and national security were listed.  I’d guess Senator Coburn didn’t read it when developing his amendment (he doesn’t like political science research on principle, and would have rather banned the funding of it outright).

In a certain way, the scientific community, or at least its advocates, is starting to resemble the non-compromising members of Congress who can be credited for much of the recent unpleasantness.  They keep saying no without presenting alternatives.

*(Confirmation Watch for Director Nominee Dr. Cordova – 3 months and counting)

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7 thoughts on “Apparently NSF Grant Applicants Still Allergic To Broader Impacts

  1. The current Merit Review Criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact allow all the ‘national goals’ listed in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 to be included, without limiting proposers to that list. As soon as a list of national needs is written into the critiera — by adding a so-called third criterion to the review process — we limit the autonomy and creativity of researchers. That strikes me as a bad idea.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but Acting Director Marrett’s remarks were in fact limited to the Political Science Program. Although I agree that the trend is in the direction of imposing a narrow list of ‘needs’ on proposers and reviewers, that hasn’t happened, yet, except for Political Science.

    Scientists and advocates for science — assuming they value scientific autonomy — should embrace the two criteria as currently written. If they don’t, it is highly likely that the push for a ‘third criterion’ will gain momentum.

  2. Britt,
    You’re correct, Acting Director Marrett’s remarks were focused on the Political Science program as its the only program affected at the moment. Any implications by me that other programs were currently affected were unintended.
    However, the draft legislation circulated earlier in the year by the Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee allows for such an expansion. Language from that legislation is currently in the draft legislation advanced by House Republicans. Whether it survives the legislative process is unclear.

    I think we’ve discussed our differences on this before, but I think it would have benefited the grantee community to include the listed goals in the new criteria, while maintaining that these were not the only possible impacts that could be considered. It would have made it easier for the Foundation to push back against this ‘third criteria’ effort that I suspect will eventually succeed absent some compromise from researchers. Hopefully they have not lost their only opportunity to get out in front of the problem. The reactive posture research advocates are used to seems increasingly ill-advised in the present economic and political climates.

    • Actually, I agree that leaving the list in the revised criteria would have made it easier to push back against the ‘third criterion’ business. But that isn’t the only purpose of the review criteria, or of the Broader Impacts Criterion. It would be ill advised for NSF only to consider Congressional accountability demands in designing their Merit Review Process. This doesn’t mean that accountability demands should not be considered at all, of course. The current criteria are well designed and take account of accountability demands without making that the entire purpose of Merit Review. In my opinion, and I have been researching this issue for 10 years, members of Congress would do well to think twice before mucking things up here.

      That said, I still think scientists need to get their act together and quit simply resisting the Broader Impacts Criterion. It really puts NSF in a bind; and it’s ultimately self-defeating. As you point out, there’s ample reason to think that members of Congress are intent on introducing more specific accountability demands into legislation. I don’t know whether scientists could prevent this from happening in the short term. But I do know that simple resistance to accountability demands will not work in the long term.

  3. Jeffrey Mervis has reported on how the resistance continues. It’s as though no one has added to the advocacy playbook in years.
    http://news.sciencemag.org/education/2013/11/republican-plan-guide-nsf-programs-draws-darts-and-befuddlement-research-advocates

    Particularly annoying quote:
    “Such specificity bothers Michael Lubell, head of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Physical Society. ‘NSF already requires PIs [principal investigators] to describe the broader impacts of their research,’ he says. ‘So why would you list six goals? It suggests that the mission of the foundation should be changed.'”

    Had the community embraced the questions, it would stand a better chance of being able to define how those questions inform the process on their terms. In the present circumstances, they now appear to be resisting both accountability and additional congressional oversight.

    • I agree with Lubell on the question of specificity, as we argue here (http://rev.oxfordjournals.org/content/20/3/239.full.pdf) and here (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6039/157). I’d say such specificity is a threat not so much to the mission of NSF, but rather to its character.

      NSF is essentially a bottom-up organization in character. I am not suggesting that there is no top-down element to NSF. Obviously, there are directorates and programs that have general guidelines about the sorts of research they want to fund. But the bottom-up element — the idea that ideas come from the scientific community, rather than the scientific community having to limit its research to a set of predetermined ideas — is stronger at NSF.

      For Congress to impose a specific list of national needs suggests that they know better than scientists what sort of research ought to be performed. It also suggests that members of Congress are in special possession of knowledge about what is best for the country as a whole. I doubt both of those claims; and when they are taken together, Lysenko comes to mind. But even if members of Congress were better able to determine what sort of research should be funded, it would mark a radical change in the bottom up character of NSF. Anyone who thinks FIRST is conservative needs to think twice.

      I am not at all opposed to accountability. But accountability must be thought in relation with autonomy. Just as scientists who resist the very idea of a Broader Impacts Criterion err on the side of overemphasizing autonomy, members of Congress who seek to impose a list of national needs on scientists err on the side of overemphasizing accountability. NSF’s current Merit Review Process is designed to balance these values. Does Congress have the power to redesign the process? Of course they do. Should they do so? I don’t think it would be wise. The process was just redesigned on the basis of careful thought and much research. It needs to be given a chance to work.

  4. I think the best way the community could have dealt with this interest in meeting national needs was to explicitly embrace it in the peer review revisions and dictate – on their terms – how to meet those needs. Because it appears that they have rejected that request, they are now subject to imposition from on high. You claim the process was redesigned on the basis of careful thought, but neither the Foundation nor its supporters have made the case (or at least successfully made that case) that it addresses the interests expressed by Congress in this proposed legislation.

    As for changing the mission of the Foundation, it’s changed several times over its history. Perhaps the most fundamental change was in 1968, when the Foundation started supporting applied research and research in social science fields. While Research Applied to National Needs didn’t survive the 1970s, EPSCoR did. Has anyone ever argued that all EPSCoR research, by definition, counts as broader impacts on the research enterprise?

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