National Science Foundation's Merit-Review Process Comes Under Fire


July 2013

National Science Foundation's Merit-Review Process Comes Under Fire



Connecticut Community College students visit Trumpf Inc.
Connecticut Community College students visit Trumpf Inc., a world leader in sheet metal fabrication machinery and industrial lasers, to see how manufacturers use lasers. The students attend a program that's part of the National Science Foundation's Advanced Technological Education center.

As the only federal agency dedicated solely to supporting essential education and research across all science and engineering fields, the National Science Foundation is of great importance to the field of engineering and to the licensed professional engineer. Consequently, all PEs should be aware of current developments in the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology that threaten the NSF's merit-based peer review process.


Established in 1950, the National Science Foundation focuses primarily on supporting basic research. In the current fiscal year, about $6 billion of the agency's $7 billion in appropriations funds basic research grants. NSF also administers important undergraduate and graduate engineering education programs to prepare the next generation of PEs. In awarding approximately 11,000 limited-term grants annually, the NSF uses a scientific merit-based peer review process established and overseen by the National Science Board. These grants enable groundbreaking innovations that contribute to the advancement of the engineering profession in the 21st century.

In a political climate emphasizing the need for budgetary restraint, NSF's approximately $7 billion budget has at times been criticized, and the Republican-led House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which oversees the National Science Foundation, has sought to trim the agency's spending in the past. However, at an April 18, 2013, committee hearing regarding the NSF's proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget, Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) shifted the focus from the budget to the merit-review process the NSF uses to award all of its grants. In the hearing and in a subsequent letter to the NSF's Acting Director Cora Marrett, Smith voiced his concern about how the NSF prioritizes research initiatives based on the potential value to the national interest.

He subsequently circulated draft legislation, titled the High Quality Research Act. This bill would require that the director of the National Science Foundation certify that each grant awarded by the NSF would result in scientific discovery that would benefit the national interest.

The letter and draft legislation immediately stirred up tremendous concern and controversy among politicians, the NSF, and the broader scientific community. Chairman Smith's counterpart in the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), responded with a scathing letter on April 26, stating that "this is the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely viewed as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world." She further pointed out that "In this context, the term 'peer' is not simply a fellow citizen?. It means very specifically another scientist with expertise in at least some aspect of the science being proposed. Politicians, even a distinguished chairman?cannot be 'peers' in any meaningful sense."

Although the politics involved may border on the theatric, the key point should not be missed: Allowing politics to influence the method by which scientific grants are awarded can have profoundly negative impacts on research and development, which are vital to the success of the national economy.

On a pragmatic level, this legislation could bring operations at the NSF to a screeching halt. How could the National Science Foundation's director truthfully certify that each grant awarded by the NSF would promote the national interest? In a statement on May 8, a group of former NSF assistant directors wrote that "the draft bill mandates a certification process for NSF awards that frankly requires the director to accurately predict the future."

Recognizing the importance of this issue and the critical role that the NSF plays in developing research and supporting education for the engineering profession, NSPE has signed onto a letter urging all 535 members of Congress to protect the NSF's merit-review process. This letter, organized by the Coalition for National Science Funding (NSPE is a member), states that "While past Congresses and administrations have at times identified areas of science for funding emphasis at NSF such as in nanotechnology, robotics, information technology, and cybersecurity, they have prudently and appropriately allowed these research areas to be informed by priorities set by the National Science Board?and to be guided by the science community through a strong system of merit review." NSPE will continue to work diligently with Congress and the larger scientific and engineering community to ensure that the National Science Foundation will be able to continue to carry out its mission to drive engineering innovation and education.

Arielle Eiser is NSPE's government relations manager.