High, Higher, Highest Quality Research Act

“The High Quality Research Act” (HQRA), which has not been formally introduced in Congress, continues to draw attention. SeeClowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right.”  Last week, Nature published an editorial piece suggesting that the HQRA is not much of a threat. Daniel Sarewitz, “Pure hype of pure research helps no one, ” 497 Nature 411 (2013).

Sarewitz suggests that “the problem” is the hype about the benefits of pure research and the let down that results from the realization that scientific progress is “often halting and incremental,” with much research not “particularly innovative or valuable.”  Fair enough, but why is this Congress such an unsophisticated consumer of scientific research in the 21st century?  How can it be a surprise that the scientific community engages in the same rent-seeking behaviors as do other segments of our society? Has it escaped Congress’s attention that scientists are subject to enthusiasms and group think, just like, … congressmen?

Still, Sarewitz believes that the HQRA bill is not particularly threatening to the funding of science:

“In other words, it’s not a very good bill, but neither is it much of a threat. In fact, it’s just the latest skirmish in a long-running battle for political control over publicly funded science — one fought since at least 1947, when President Truman vetoed the first bill to create the NSF because it didn’t include strong enough lines of political accountability.”

This sanguine evaluation misses the effect of the superlatives in the criteria for National Science Foundation funding:

“(1) is 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) is the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

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

HQRA Section 2(a) – (c).  These superlatives set up most research proposals to fail because of the scientific community’s inability to predict in advance which studies will be truly “ground breaking” and will “answer questions .. that are of utmost importance….”  Congressmen will thus be able selectively to target research grants to embarrass the NSF Director in public hearings.  The Director will hardly be able to defend a particular grant with the assertion that, “well, we have many other grants that are also very fine, although not of the “finest quality”; we have other grants that are really important to society, but also not of the “utmost” importance.

Certainly, there is a good deal of wasted research funding, on grants that are frivolous.  Directing funding to worthwhile research is not an easy task, but it almost certainly beyond the ken of congressional committees.

What the HQRA attempts to set up is not another layer of peer review by the NSF Director, but by Congress itself, with a line-item veto for research that offends particular Congressional sensibilities.  Sarewitz is naive to believe that this bill poses little threat or change to the funding of science in the United States.  The HQRA is a particularly serious threat, not to NSF funding of scientific research, but to the selection of grants that to be funded.

Congress should be looking at the NSF budget for waste, but the best way to ensure that the NSF triages funding of truly important research is to limit the funds appropriated.  Contrary to the current wisdom, neither right nor left has a monopoly on stupidity when it comes to science.  The history of federal funding of alternative medicine in this country (e.g., National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and previously the Office of Alternative Medicine.) illustrates all too well how ideological funding and Congressional “oversight” works. See, e.g., Eric Boyle, “The Politics of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health,” Federal History online 16 (2011).

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