Peer Review and Congressional Oversight – An Invited Post

[The following is an invited post by Megan Tracy.]

About two weeks ago, I received an email from one of the editors of the Science Insider blog. He began: “You’ve probably heard that your NSF grant to study the [Chinese] melamine poisoning scandal was targeted at two House science committee hearings yesterday.” I hadn’t heard and this is the first time my research has become the target of what feels like the never-ending rounds of partisan politics. The original critique of my project and the others being targeted is that they fail to directly benefit the American people. I was, quite frankly, rather surprised to be included as my project examines China’s evolving food regulatory system and has direct relevance for America’s food safety and security. The targeting of particular awards are not (and never are) about their specific content or quality but rather involve broader issues including the allocation of funding, peer review and congressional oversight. (It can, however, certainly feel direct especially when the intellectual merit of your specific grant is questioned and copies of the peer reviews and the program officer’s evaluations are requested in a letter written by the committee’s chairman. As a recent Slate article notes, these attacks appear to be winning. this year, for example, the Coburn amendment successfully limits NSF funding in political science to those that promote national security or the economic interests of the US. The same article argues that with a few exceptions, the social sciences have not been pushing back and are failing to present arguments with much traction in today’s economic and political climate.

The history of selecting grants for congressional censure by both parties is long, including the Golden Fleece awards handed out by former Senator Proxmire. Grants, I’m told, are selected largely by their titles and broadly critiqued for being a waste of taxpayer money. This year, the argument has focused on the peer review process itself with Rep. Lamar Smith, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology drafting new legislation, the “High Quality Research Act” that he claims will “[maintain] the current peer review process and [improve] on it by adding a layer of accountability." The arguments are familiar as are the reactions on both sides of the political fence. Many news websites and blogs together with the comments posted to them summarize these arguments so I’ll only note the general contours here. One side argues that science funded by US taxpayers should not only be held accountable to the public but also be directly in the American public interest. How this will be done in practice is not yet clearly laid out in the draft bill (which can be seen here). The defense of peer review is vociferous–notably by another committee member, Eddie Bernice Johnson, but also in the comments on websites dedicated to science-related issues, higher education and the so-called liberal media. Even President Obama has weighed in. Critics of Smith’s draft legislation point out that the peer review process already pulls together experts to evaluate one another on scientific merit and potential value to society (broadly construed) rather than on the politics of the moment. The peer review process at NSF meets these goals with the requirement that research must meet both intellectual merit and broader impacts in order to be funded see discussion here. These basic requirements seek to ensure that promising scientific research with both immediate, practical benefits as well as work with long-term and unpredictable pay-offs receive funding.

Is anthropology paying attention? I certainly hope so. Out of the five grants targeted in Smith’s letter, two were funded primarily by NSF’s Cultural Anthropology program and a third received a small amount of support. As we all know, funding is tight and few avenues are available to conduct long-term research in our field. Political scientists spent time at a recent meeting discussing the issue and coming up with a list of tangible actions that could be taken by both the discipline and individuals (see here). Their suggestions are not discipline-specific and, especially for anthropologists like myself wondering how to respond without clear guidance yet from our discipline, certainly worth a look.

Megan Tracy is an assistant professor at James Madison University. She is currently in Beijing conducting her NSF-funded research on China’s evolving food safety regulatory system and the transformation process of regulatory measures into on-farm practices following a series of scandals in the domestic dairy industry.

7 thoughts on “Peer Review and Congressional Oversight – An Invited Post

  1. Thanks for this post, Megan. I think the author of the Slate article is right that the lack of push back coming from the social sciences is a definite issue here. Continually responding with “hey our work really matters” probably isn’t going to get us very far, as you write, in the current climate. I think we’re going to have to up our game quite a bit. I certainly hope people are paying attention here…but one thing I am not going to hold my breath waiting for “the discipline” to take the lead on stuff like this. It’s probably going to come down to a group of individuals who are fed up with the direction things are heading. But I could be wrong…

  2. Thank you for this!

    I have convened a multi-disciplinary working group here in DC, with members from the White House, National Academy of Sciences, DOE, EPA, HUD, and DOD to ‘advance a national agenda and funding for social and behavioral research on energy and energy-related issues.”

    This is for precisely some of the reasons you are outlining. TPTB in anthropology (and other social sciences) seem to have ignored/not mastered the DC dance of money. today mentions how well geneticists, for example, have (often poaching on our turf, behavior).

    I am putting copies of the documents you provided into our Dropbox for team review. We are pushing hard on some already in-place institutional structures to fight back. I can use all of the help anyone can give us — so feel free to email me at The fight WILL be taken to the enemy!

  3. Targeting this research is particularly off-base, especially considering that Congress itself mandated an entire office solely for the purpose of monitoring human rights in China as part of giving China most-favorable trading status with the U.S.–the Congressional Executive Committee on China. Your research is not about human rights, but is related.

    Further, the State Department funds projects supporting the development of the rule of law in China, as this would appear to be in our national interest.

    I’m not sure how best to proceed, but the fact that this project really is pretty much in the interests of the American people might be useful in discrediting those who chose to attack it and the general idea of political oversight of grant funding.

    I wonder if the NSF would fund a comparative research project on ideological censorship of scientific research in Maoist China and in the U.S. today.

  4. As a doctoral student who also works in China reading this is particularly troubling to me even after reading about the initial attacks earlier this week with the draft proposed bill, which I believe is rather ironically titled something along the lines of the “integrity of research” act and yet it wants to remove peer review from NSF’s process. NSF is one of several key funding sources I will be applying to over the next year for my doctoral work and as Eric ironically states the government has already expressed a very strong interest in China based research. Our countries and intimately tied together and we both affect each other heavily. I believe this is some sort of personal fishing expedition on behalf of this representative. I was happy to hear that the president actually gave a speech this same week in which he mentioned anthropology specifically and stated he would staunchly defend both the social sciences and peer review, which makes me hopeful that if this bill makes it out of committee and through both houses that he would still veto it, however we will need to take more action ourselves. Write your congressmen and senators about this for sure!

    I would also like to think a major plus for us here with the President’s personal involvement and interest in protecting us would be his mother’s career as an anthropologist who also received large amounts of federal funding for her work in Indonesia through USAID.

  5. The Sinocism newsletter has linked to this post with the comment “if you buy at Trader Joe’s in the US check the label for origin..I was surprised by how much comes from China; Chinese food safety is very relevant to American consumers.”

  6. Thanks, everyone, for the comments. And I am happy to hear about joint efforts to build larger groups that can respond collectively to what seems to be a parallel set of efforts to de-fund the social sciences. A robust and sustained reply from anthropology would be a welcome addition. I have heard there is something in the works. Though it is in the news at the moment and on people’s minds, this is not the end of it. One analysis I read suggested that President Obama’s involvement signaled the seriousness of the issue (if he is paying attention, we should all be worried). Maybe there is some merit to it. For those of you interested in China specifically, the webcast is worth watching (but I am unable to access it). (See The fact that my grant was included demonstrates: 1) cherry-picking by title without a more in-depth look at even the publicly available abstract and 2) as I have already said, the whole debate has little to do with the merit or content of the grants themselves.

  7. I also noticed an interesting recent article on the renewed search for gravity waves, a massively complex piece of research that will cost U.S. taxpayers many millions of dollars, yet I don’t hear Lamar Smith or other critics of social science research grumbling that such projects have even less direct benefit to the American people. There really ought to be substantial push-back against these idiots.

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