Eighteen Former NSF Assistant Directors Criticize House Science Committee Bill and Inquiry

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Publication date: 
10 May 2013

Dating from terms that started in 1985, eighteen former Assistant Directors of the National Science Foundation have written to House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) about the proposed High Quality Research Act and an April 25 letter to the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation about five grants awarded by the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences.  The research managed by these Assistant Directors spanned a broad range of disciplines, including the physical and geological sciences and engineering.

A similar letter was sent by three former Directors of the National Science Foundation and three Chairmen of the National Science Board.   Both letters convey a similar message of deep concern about the impacts of the proposed legislation and the committee’s inquiry on NSF’s merit review system.  The Assistant Directors stated:

“These developments are both very troubling to us and we appeal to you and the Committee to set this bill aside and rescind the April 25th letter because we believe they both will damage the health of the Nation’s research enterprise.”

The full letter follows, with paragraph breaks inserted:

“Dear Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Johnson:

“Those of us signing this letter have had the privilege to serve as one of NSF’s Assistant Directors at some point in our research careers. In that capacity, we had the responsibility of maintaining the health and vitality of our respective disciplines so that collectively, we would contribute to strengthening this Nation’s research enterprise and in so doing contribute to the Nation’s economic competitiveness.

“We have had the opportunity to review the draft version of the High Quality Research Act that is circulating and we are aware the Committee’s April 25th letter to NSF. These developments are both very troubling to us and we appeal to you and the Committee to set this bill aside and rescind the April 25th letter because we believe they both will damage the health of the Nation’s research enterprise.

“NSF’s merit-based criteria to determine support for investigator-driven, basic science has placed and kept our nation in the forefront of global science and the global economy. There is a reason why students from all over the world have flocked to our universities. Many of these students have stayed and contributed to our economic well-being. Many more have returned home and are now beginning to emulate our success. At the same time, our K-12 and undergraduate students – the future of our nation – are under-performing by world standards.

“Moreover, nearly every one of us has played a role in hosting numerous international delegations that came to NSF to learn how we use NSF’s merit review criteria to evaluate the quality of the research proposed for support to the agency. The reason these international science dignitaries came was so they could emulate our system within their own research communities. This draft bill, in our view, would diminish the strength of the NSF review process to identify the most meritorious research.

“The draft bill mandates a certification process for NSF awards that frankly requires the Director to accurately predict the future. The history of scientific discovery suggests this is just not feasible and we, as former federal science and technology executives, would suggest many basic research projects in every field supported by the NSF would likely not qualify for certification under this bill. This would be shortsighted, in our opinion since some of our greatest discoveries and innovations were unexpectedly born from basic research. Charles Townes did not know that his research that sought to generate a controlled, extended stream of microwaves would ultimately lead to the invention of the laser. Laser technology is now used to perform countless lifesaving medical procedures, to increase our soldiers’ effectiveness on the battlefield, and provide for a range of consumer goods and efficiencies such as DVD players and grocery scanners. Had there been a pre-research certification required for this early research into lasers, these important advancements likely would not have taken place.

“We also believe the draft bill would undermine NSF’s role of building the foundation of basic research on which applied science must depend. Science advances in many ways; transformative discoveries cannot happen without relying on and building off of previous findings. NSF, consistent with the Organic Act enacted by the Congress, takes the long view by supporting activities that expand knowledge and increase our understanding of basic principles that, in turn, fuel the development of new technologies that help expand this Nation’s competitive edge.

“Our concerns about the message conveyed to NSF in the April 25th letter are equally dismaying. As we read the letter it seems as if the Committee is launching an investigation into how well NSF adheres to its intellectual merit criterion by examining five specific grants awarded by the Foundation. To carry out this investigation, the Committee has asked for copies of the confidential scientific and technical reviews and the program officers’ own analyses of the proposals. This is represents a very dangerous precedent and puts Congress in the position of second guessing the scientific judgment of experts with significant credentials in their respective fields of science.

“If the investigation suggested in this letter goes forward, the Committee’s actions will create a chilling environment that will severely damage a merit review system that is the envy of the world. The Foundation relies on tens of thousands of experts from every field of science and engineering to give it thoughtful candid evaluations of proposals that have been submitted. Reviewers provide this detailed level of evaluation without compensation. This is an incredibly valuable service the science and engineering community provides the Nation. The way the Committee is preceding will, in our judgment, create an environment of intimidation amongst the experts NSF calls upon to help evaluate proposals and ultimately damage a merit-based evaluation system that has served the Nation well for many years.

“Now is the time to redouble our efforts, to maintain our competitive edge – not to enact legislation that would add a burdensome and unrealistic layer of bureaucracy to our research enterprise, or discourage through intimidation honest candid evaluation of research proposals by the scientific and engineering research community. Both actions would do nothing but benefit our international competitors. Therefore, we call on the Committee to take no further action on this draft bill or the April 25th letter to NSF and instead develop a bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES act that provides the support necessary to strengthen our research enterprise and increase our competitive edge in the face of growing international competition.

“We appreciate the opportunity to provide our views on these matters to the Committee.”


The letter was signed by:

James Collins; Assistant Director for Biological Sciences; 2005-2009

David Lightfoot; Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences; 2005-2009

Ruzena Bajcsy; Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering; 1999-2001

Peter Freeman; Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering; 2002-2007

Michael S. Turner; Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences; 2003-2006

Judith Ramaley; Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources; 2001-2005

William Merrell; Assistant Director for Geosciences; 1985-1987

Robert W. Corell; Assistant Director for Geosciences; 1987-2000

Margaret Leinen; Assistant Director for Geosciences; 2000-2007

Mary Clutter; Assistant Director for Biological Sciences; 1991-2006; and Assistant Director for Biological, Behavioral and Social Sciences; 1989-1991

Robert A. Eisenstein; Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences; 1997- 2002

Norman Bradburn; Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences; 2000-2004

Timothy Killeen; Assistant Director for Geosciences; 2008-2012

Jeannette Wing; Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering; 2007-2010

William Harris; Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences; 1992-1996

Thomas Peterson; Assistant Director for Engineering; 2009-2012

Richard Nicholson; Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences; 1985-1989

Richard O. Buckius; Assistant Director for Engineering; 2006-2008