Tuesday, May 7, 2013

US Proposal to Replace Peer Review with "Political Review" in Grants Process

Steven Novella, at Science Based Medicine, writes:
[U.S.] Representative Lamar Smith has been developing legislation that would in effect replace the peer-review process by which grants are currently given with a congressional process. Rather than having relevant scientists and experts decide on the merits of proposed research Smith would have politicians decide. It is difficult to imagine a more intrusive and disastrous process for public science funding.
Novella also points out the three basic tenets of Smith's proposed legislation are reasonable, that is 1) science must advance the prosperity of the United States, 2) be of the highest quality and be groundbreaking, and 3) not duplicate other research projects.

Sounds good.  We want research that's useful, excellent, and efficiently delivered.

The problem with the first two points is that clear goals and applications need to be defined for research to be useful or deemed to be groundbreaking in order to receive funds.  This generally rules out a lot of academic research, which usually has a clear goal but not necessarily a good application for the knowledge that's to be acquired, while 'groundbreaking' research is usually recognized as such only after the fact.

He also points out that duplication of efforts are needed to tackle scientific problems. 

To a point, this is true, as I've seen numerous cases of nearly identical articles being published in the same issue of journals.  I tend to believe that even if we were to demand absolutely zero duplication of efforts, most 'duplicated' research really attacks the same question using two or more complementary approaches, which make the end results(s) much more believable, so you could argue that the research isn't really a duplication of effort at all.

Duplication of effort aside, it might be worthwhile to argue for is better coordination between groups interested in the same questions, but that's what conferences are for.

The last point I like in Novella's post is that while some political forces are eager to attack wasteful government spending, even private funding isn't as efficient as some would like to believe:
This can happen with private funding as well. I have seen it happen with disease research. Private charitable organizations raise money to research a disease. The organizers want that money to go to research that will directly benefit patients (who are often their primary donors). But if this prematurely pushes researchers toward clinical studies when we don’t have the basic science sufficiently worked out yet, you end up wasting a lot of time and resources on dead ends.
Just something to keep in mind when trying to reach a research goal, be it academic or applied, before the results are ready to stand on their own.