Science, Security, & the NSF

Science magazine reports today on a US House of Representatives bill that would revamp both the review criteria and the review process for National Science Foundation grants. Under the proposed legislation, the current criteria employed by peer reviewers — under which referees assess whether a proposed research project has “Intellectual Merit” and whether it will have a “Broader Impact” on the scientific community and society — is to be replaced by a three-part test under which each grant must be found to be:

  1. “…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
  2. “… [of] the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
  3. “…not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

The requirement that program directors certify that each funded proposal meets the three-part test would shift power from relatively politically insulated peer reviewers to NSF staff who would need to be much more attentive to Congressional whims. Indeed, many of the (often amusing) comments on the Science website address these changes in the certification process. (My favorite comment, so far: “Sounds fair, as long as the scientists get to decide which bills get enacted into laws.”)

But perhaps as pernicious as the proposed changes in the review process are the proposed changes in the review criteria, particularly the first criterion. For comparison, it is useful to look at the the current guidelines for “Broader Impact.” In the current NSF Grant Proposal Guide, “Broader Impact” is associated with:

“outcomes [that] include, but are not limited to: full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); improved STEM education and educator development at any level; increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology; improved well-being of individuals in society; development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce; increased partnerships between academia, industry, and others; improved national security; increased economic competitiveness of the United States; and enhanced infrastructure for research and education.”

This text would effectively be replaced by that new first criterion that requires that research produce outcomes that are:

“…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science” (emphasis added).

I find it hard to believe that switch from the ‘or’ that links the first three objectives to the ‘and’ that links them with the fourth is accidental. The message is clear: Science is useful because it can promote health, prosperity, or welfare, which, in turn, are legitimate social objectives because they are the (and apparently the only) building blocks of security. Put another way, the only reason to fund science is because it promotes health, prosperity, or welfare, and the only reason why health, prosperity, or welfare matter is because they contribute to national defense or security.

Obviously, the discourse of securitization runs deep in this proposed legislation, but maybe even more interesting is that the bill’s drafters apparently recognize how flexible the notion of ‘security’ can be. Indeed, they have pre-emptively sought to nip in the bud a potentially limitless extension of the concept of ‘security’. While the legislation  supports the idea of security being a social goal,  it pointedly restricts the social aspects of security to health-related and economic-related development. That excludes huge areas of social research, which is probably exactly what the drafters intended, especially given the legislation’s origins in the March 2013 Coburn Amendment that restricted NSF Political Science funding.

That phrase “health, prosperity, or welfare” bears a certain resemblance to the U.S. Declaration of Independence’s invocation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (or, in its original Lockean version, “life, liberty, and property”), except that the “liberty” part drops out of the equation. That’s an interesting “outcome” for legislators who likely would state that the ultimate purpose of national security is to secure our “freedom.”

Phil S.


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