Thursday, May 30, 2013

The High Quality Research Act

Lots of talk, mostly negative, about the proposed High Quality Research Act.
Prior to making an award of any contract or grant funding for a scientific research project, the Director of the National Science Foundation shall publish a statement on the public website of the Foundation that certifies that the research project
(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 groundbreaking, 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.
On the whole, doesn't sound like a bad thing. So why the fuss? Because the bill's sponsor Lamar Smith, republican congressman from Texas and chair of the house science committee, also sent a letter to the NSF acting director asking for the reviews on five grant proposals. So the High Quality Research Act is an attempt to give congressional approval to the grants process and perhaps requiring justification of individual grants. Nothing good can come from that.

The NSF bravely said no to Smith's request for the reviews. That was two weeks ago and I haven't seen any new news on the topic. Let's hope that High Quality Research Act just simply disappears.


  1. As I had said earlier on G+ somewhere, if all research is groundbreaking, you're left with nothing to stand on. While (3) is not in principle objectionable, (1) and (2) are crazy.

  2. In experimental science (3) seems quite objectionable. Replicability is one of the key distinguishers of science from pseudoscience!

  3. Leaving aside the obvious objections to 1 and 2, I find 3 very objectionable too. For one, scientific experiments are supposed to be repeatable, and refusing to fund repeating of an experiment seems extremely dangerous to me. Moreover, for high risk projects, I don't understand not funding more than one attempt at it. Isn't this stipulating that only one group will be funded to attack your favorite problem at any time?

    How do you not see this as a bad thing even ignoring where this is coming from?

  4. I have to agree with the other comments, it seems terrible on its face, and any of the three sections would be terrible on their own, too. I'm hoping you were making us of literary license to (quite correctly) point out that it being sponsored by Lamar Smith is, by itself, a cause for concern.

  5. I don't understand (2). How are you supposed to justify all these requirements BEFORE the research program began? You try something, maybe it ends up being groundbreaking and maybe not so, if you could tell the results in advance it wouldn't be science.

    Totally agree with previous reviewers about (3). However, I find (1) to be vague enough to be ignored (isn't this sort of a criterion today?). What's the objection there?

  6. On (2), is it even possible to determine whether research which hasn't happened yet is going to be groundbreaking?

    Otherwise, I can understand that someone could reasonably promote this proposal for how to allocate federal funding of science. However, as someone who believes that much of our success is grounded in our scientific achievements, small and large, from my perspective it absolutely does "sound like a bad thing."

  7. Anonymous 1:23 AM, May 31, 2013,

    I find (1) objectionable due to it being impossible to say how - or if - some fundamental research will "advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense". How did the search for the Higgs do this? We don't know yet; it's very possible that it ultimately will and possible that it ultimately won't. Same thing for a lot of TCS research. A lot of this stuff is esoteric, and while some of it will likely prove to be beneficial for America, how do you quantify it now?

  8. "I find (1) to be vague enough to be ignored"

    The trouble with vague criteria such as this is that, much like laws that make nearly everyone a criminal, they add too much subjectivity into the system and give the judging person sufficient leeway to use any criteria they want to use and still be able to justify their decision based on this vague and arbitrary criterion. I would be wary.