When groups of people come together and pool their resources, great things can be accomplished (flinging humans onto the Moon comes to mind). In the US, the National Science Foundation is a factory of great things. It guides billions of tax dollars into university research projects each year (in 2015, $7.344 billion to be exact). And since science costs money, one unhappy necessity of the academic lifestyle is securing funding to keep the lights on and the lab running. (Give a kid a grant-writing kit to go with their chemistry set for Christmas. See if they play with it.) NSF grants are the lifeblood of many fields of science.
Getting a grant isn’t easy. In 2012, for example, NSF reviewed more than 48,000 grant proposals—each representing work that researchers were chomping at the bit to do. Less than 12,000 won approval. A number of researchers volunteer their time each year to go review grant proposals in their field, recommending the proposals they feel to be the best use of the money budgeted for their discipline. As is generally the case with peer review of papers for scientific journals, the reviewers remain anonymous. (“Oh, hi Jane! Say, I see you shot down the proposal I’ve been working toward for a decade…”)
Recently, the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, led by Texas Representative Lamar Smith, has tussled with NSF over research that Rep. Smith felt was a waste of funding. That included a broad effort to alter the criteria NSF used in judging grants to ensure they are “in the national interest,” but it also involved attempts to probe the approval of individual grants. Rep. Smith requested access to all documents pertaining to certain grants, including the peer reviews NSF closely guards as confidential. NSF was not pleased with these requests. Neither was the Association of American Universities.
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