FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

AIP Takes Action on Bill Requiring Disclosure of Proposals and Peer Reviewers

Aline D. McNaull
Number 31 - February 24, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The American Institute of Physics (AIP) along with 83 other organizations, including four of its Member Societies: the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Astronomical Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the Optical Society, signed a letter sent by the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) to every member in the House of Representatives regarding the GRANT Act.    

AIP also endorsed the letter sent by the American Physical Society to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, regarding the GRANT Act.    

The GRANT Act, which requires the disclosure of peer reviewers, was passed by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  The bill was introduced by Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) on November 16, 2011 and was passed through the Committee on November 17.  Lankford is the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform.  Cosponsors of this legislation include Chairman Issa, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), and Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR).     

The CNSF letter cites concerns with specific provisions in the GRANTS Act, including those “that would require the posting of a complete copy of a funded grant proposal to a new government-wide website.” 

The CNSF letter lays out the following reasons for this concern:

“Granting agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), receive proposals in confidence and protect the often proprietary nature of their contents. Reviewers are obligated to maintain the confidentiality of the proposal being reviewed and the review itself. Requiring a complete copy of a funded grant proposal to be available on a public website would seriously limit the ability of grant recipients to reap benefits from their own research. A proposal can contain intellectual property of the researcher and the institution that employs the researcher. The ideas and directions of research outlined are, in most cases, based on years of work. These ideas can also be the basis for other research performed by the proposer, including research that may not be funded by the federal government.”

The APS letter, endorsed by AIP, raises two specific concerns regarding provisions in the GRANT Act relating to posting requirements: 

“The first – which would require an agency to publicly post in its entirety every application it has acted upon favorably within 15 days after it has notified the recipient – could compromise any unpublished intellectual property contained in the proposal, robbing the recipient of possible scientific and entrepreneurial benefit

“The second – which would require the public posting of 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’  – would severely inhibit peer review if the name of the reviewer and a given grant are clearly linked. The science community from time to time has examined the virtue of removing anonymity from the peer-review procedure and has consistently concluded that revealing names of reviewers would cripple the process. Without anonymity, many researchers will not agree to review proposals at all, or should they agree to do so, they would be much less candid or openly critical of any proposed research, greatly compromising the utility of the peer-review practice.”

The CNSF letter also expresses concerns regarding patent applications:

“Posting grant applications will jeopardize researchers’ patent opportunities thereby reducing incentives for technology transfer. Additionally, the public posting of U.S. researchers’ ideas would enable competitors (including foreign scientists and industries) to steal cutting-edge American intellectual property – eroding our ability to stay at the forefront in critical scientific and engineering fields and of commercial production.” 

Regarding the disclosure of peer reviewers, the letter expresses the following views of CNSF:

“We also oppose disclosure of peer reviewers, either by name or unique identifier. As written, the provision would allow identification of peer reviewers at the individual grant level in areas of research in which there are small numbers of scientists and engineers. An important characteristic of the current peer-review process is the anonymity of the reviewers. This process has helped to foster many seminal discoveries throughout all science, engineering, and mathematics disciplines and has contributed to the development of a significant cadre of first rate researchers in all disciplines. The success of the peer-review process depends on the willingness of qualified reviewers to be candid and critical as needed in the evaluation of research proposals and, in fact, without the anonymity provided in the current process, many researchers would not be willing to review proposals.” 

The CNSF letter does offer a recommendation that agencies require the posting of abstracts of funded proposals to the website and states that “this would protect the intellectual property while providing useful information about the research to the taxpayers.” 

The CNSF letter concludes that though increased transparency and accountability are worthy goals, the grants process is currently very accountable and transparent.  But closes with this statement: “H.R. 3433 would disrupt this balance and ultimately be detrimental to the U.S. science and engineering research enterprise.”

The full text of the CNSF letter will soon be available here.

A previous FYI on the GRANTS Act can be found here.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics