Created by on 08/02/2011

Last week, the Research and Science Education Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on merit review in order to better understand the process, identify the current system’s strengths and potential weaknesses, and explore possible improvements or alternatives to standard practices. The hearing, entitled “The Merit Review Process: Ensuring Limited Federal Resources are Invested in the Best Science,” focused primarily on the merit review process at the National Science Foundation (NSF), as outlined in the hearing charter. In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) said, “We want to know if the current process spurs or stifles innovation, how award decisions are actually made after receiving peer review, and if there are flaws in the system that may be providing precious federal funds to lower rated proposals over more highly rated proposals.”

Witnesses included NSF Deputy Director Dr. Cora Marrett, University of California San Francisco Vice Chancellor for Research Dr. Keith Yamamoto, American Chemical Society President Dr. Nancy Jackson, and Indiana University Vice President for Research Dr. Jorge José. In her testimony, Dr. Marrett provided an overview of NSF’s merit review process, explaining that panels of expert scientists judge project proposals on their intellectual merit and potential to have “broader impacts” on an established set of national goals. Dr. Yamamoto, in contrast, testified that it is unrealistic to expect scientific review panels to successfully assess the relevance of individual applications to a funding agency’s overall research portfolio. When asked by Chairman Brooks to describe what might be done to improve the process, Dr. Jackson suggested that program officers be given the authority to immediately reject the lowest quality proposals, reducing the burden on external reviewers. In addition, Yamamoto recommended a separate system be put in place to identify truly transformative research. Other topics discussed during the hearing included the distribution of prizes as a funding mechanism, the utilization of telecommunications technology to institute “virtual review panels,” the potential for personal bias to influence peer review decisions, and the importance of developing appropriate metrics to measure outcomes of investments in science.

Chairman Brooks and Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) expressed a desire to organize a tutorial that would enable members of Congress to learn about the merit review process in greater detail. Chairman Brooks also asked the witnesses to submit compilations of scientific “success stories” that would help illustrate to lawmakers and the general public the value of peer-reviewed research. A webcast of the hearing is available on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s website.