House Committee Passes Bill Requiring Disclosure of Peer Reviewers

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Publication date: 
2 December 2011
Number: 
143

The  House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has passed a bill requiring  the disclosure of peer reviewers.  H.R.  3433, the “Grant Reform and New Transparency Act of 2011” or the GRANT Act   was introduced by Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) on November 16, and was passed by  the committee the next day.  Lankford is  the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy,  Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform.  Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is an  original cosponsor.

As  introduced in the House, the 21-page bill has the following language in a  section entitled Website relating to Federal grants:

“REQUIREMENT  -- The Director of the Office of Management and Budget shall upgrade any  existing or proposed public website for finding Federal grant opportunities and  applying for such grants so that such website may serve as a central point of  information and provide full access for applicants for competitive grants. The  website shall capture in one site, or provide electronic links to, other  relevant databases.”

Later,  under GRANT AWARD INFORMATION, is the following provision:

“DISCLOSURE  OF PEER REVIEWERS -- The name, title, and employer of each individual who  served as a peer reviewer for the grant program concerned, during the six-month  period preceding the award of the grant.”

And:

“DISCLOSURE  OF OTHER GRANT REVIEWERS -- The name, title, and employer of each individual  who served as a reviewer (other than a peer reviewer) of proposals or applications  for the grant, regardless of whether the individual is employed by the Federal  government or not”

During  the committee’s November 17 consideration or markup of the bill, Ranking Member  Elijah Cummings (D-MD) offered an amendment to strike the above language on  “Disclosure of Peer Reviewers.”  The  committee agreed to his amendment by voice vote.

However,  Lankford later won approval of an amendment that struck down the Cummings  amendment.   The Lankford amendment also inserted the words  “or unique identifier” after “name.”  All  other “Disclosure of Peer Reviewers” language was retained as shown above.

In  a statement issued after the committee's passage of H.R. 3433 by voice vote, Lankford stated:

“This  legislation will bring transparency to the $50 billion annual discretionary and  federal grant programs.  During a time of  massive budget deficits, members of both parties came together today to ensure  that taxpayer dollars are spent in a wise and accountable manner.  The current process is too complex and  operates with little transparency. With the federal government offering 1,670  grant programs annually, it should be required that the agencies leading these  programs clearly disclose how grants are evaluated and awarded. This will help  bring fairness for applicants going through the grant process and give  taxpayers a greater level of transparency concerning how their tax dollars are  spent.”

Touching  on these same points in his opening remarks at the markup, Chairman Issa said  the bill was a long overdue reform that would create a “more transparent and  accountable federal government.”  The merit  review process is often “impenetrable and opaque,” he said, adding that H.R.  3433 “lifts the veil of secrecy” to help determine if federal grants are  awarded purely on merit, or for political considerations.  Lankford’s remarks echoed many of these points,  saying that the bill’s provisions would enable unsuccessful applicants for a  federal grant to determine if “the deck is stacked against them in favor of the  big guys.”  “This bill covers a lot of  ground” he stated, and would cover grants for programs ranging from assisting  victims of domestic violence to “cutting-edge research.”  Lankford said that committee staff had  consulted with the Office of Management and Budget, National Science  Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and DARPA in developing the bill,  and also with organizations representing research universities.  “We worked with these groups and will  continue to do so,” he said.  Lankford  also stated that the bill does not compromise academic freedom or dampen  innovative research.

In response to the committee's action,  the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the Council on  Government Relations sent a letter to Issa and Lankford. (http://aau.edu/)   The opening paragraph of this November 28 letter states:

“On  behalf of the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public  and Land-grant Universities, and the Council on Governmental Relations, we  write to express our concerns about HR 3433, the Grant Reform and New  Transparency (GRANT) Act of 2011, and its potential adverse effects on  scientific research and our nation’s innovation system. Together, our  associations represent the leading U.S. research universities, which receive  nearly half of all competitively awarded federal grants, more than any other  sector. We have appreciated the opportunity to comment on early drafts of the  bill; however, in its current form, we would oppose the legislation if the full  House were to consider the bill. We urge you to make changes to this  legislation along the lines we outline below.”

The  two-page letter later continues:

“Accountability  for - including the transparency of - competitively awarded federal research  grants is very robust. Consequently, we do not understand the need for this  legislation as it pertains to competitively awarded federal research grants. It  may be that greater accountability is needed for federal grants other than  those for scientific research; however, the one-size-fits-all approach to  transparency in the legislation would have unintended and detrimental  consequences to our nation’s basic research enterprise if the bill becomes law.”

The  letter describes five major areas of concern in the section on Grant Award  Information.  Regarding peer reviewers,  the letter explains:

“DISCLOSURE  OF PEER REVIEWERS -- We remain very concerned about this element of the bill.  Anonymity in the peer review process for reviewing scientific and other  academic grant proposals has served science and our nation very well over the  past several decades. Anonymity in the process permits greater candor in the  evaluation of grant applications and thereby, contributes to a higher quality  of review than would otherwise occur if the names of peer reviewers related to  a specific application were known. The promise of anonymity is also helpful in  recruiting volunteer peer reviewers. We recognize that the Committee-approved  bill provides for some degree of anonymity; however, because some disciplines are  so small, true anonymity may not be possible. As such, we believe that the  downsides of disclosure outweigh the potential benefits, and that this  provision should be eliminated.”