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Four U. studies under federal investigation

Scientists worry congressional probe will impede peer-review process

Updated Tuesday, Nov. 18 at 9:30 p.m.

Four research projects led by Brown faculty members are under investigation by the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, as part of a series of inquiries into grant selection details ­— including the names of peer reviewers — related to about 60 different National Science Foundation grants.

In a statement released last Monday, the Association of American Universities wrote that it is “troubled” by the committee’s inquiries, adding, “This ill-defined investigation will harm the scientific enterprise we all support.”

Most of the grants the committee will examine support social science research outside the United States, according to a publicly available list of grants on Science Direct. The four Brown projects are all international anthropological studies.

The AAU letter marks the continuation of an ongoing debate between the members of the House committee, the NSF and other members of the scientific community over whether this sort of investigation will help or hinder scientific advancement.

Scientists at the AAU, Brown and the NSF all said their chief concern is the negative impact this form of governmental investigation could have on the peer-review process.

“Researchers are free in our country to study any subject they like, but when taxpayers finance scientific endeavors, they are entitled — legally and morally — to know how their money is spent,” wrote the House committee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex., on the committee’s website in response to the criticism.


A controversial history

During peer review, the NSF sifts through about 50,000 proposals annually. A panel of scientific experts in the same field as the proposed research examines every project’s “intellectual merit” and “broader impact” when deciding whether or not the project should receive funds, said Dana Topousis, a member of the NSF’s office of legislative and public affairs, adding that only about 22 percent of these proposals receive grant money.

The congressional committee initially asked the NSF acting director, Cora Marrett, to provide information about the review process for five studies in April 2013, though the director instead suggested a sit-down between government and NSF administrators to discuss the selection process.

Following the sit-down, the NSF agreed to clarify guidelines about what constitutes broader societal impact and create more “transparency and accountability” in the grant selection process. But by February 2014, Smith did not feel the NSF’s efforts were sufficient, according to a letter he wrote to the Chairman of the National Science Board Dan Arvizu, which has been published online.

Beginning in April, Smith demanded “every email, letter, memorandum, record, note, text message, all peer reviews considered for selection” of 60 NSF grants, according to several letters he wrote to NSF Director France Córdova.

Córdova agreed to assemble documentation related to the grants, while redacting certain portions “to protect the confidentiality of the reviewers and proprietary information,” Córdova wrote in a letter to Smith. Smith or a representative from his office were free to examine the documents at the NSF headquarters and take notes as necessary.

The NSF notified Brown of the four grants under scrutiny that April, said Vice President for Research David Savitz. The University immediately informed the researchers whose work would be examined, he added.


‘Superficial impression’ or global impact?

The four grants awarded to Brown researchers “were chosen based on — essentially — an impression that they may be obscure or not of broader societal value,” Savitz said, adding that all of the University studies indeed have important societal implications.

In anthropological studies, “knowledge is obtained from very specialized sources. In that sort of spirit, it lends itself to the superficial impression” that there is not a broader relevance, Savitz said.

In one of the projects under review, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Paja Faudree is studying the rise of international interest in salvia divinorum, a plant indigenous to Mexico that has potential pharmacological applications for treating mood disorders. The plant has also recently become a popular recreational drug, commonly known as merely “salvia.”

Understanding global trade rise of this drug can serve as a case study and provide insights about the process by which other drugs might rise in popularity, she said, adding that the rise in international importance of many other drugs has followed a similar trajectory.

Another University research project under review is Associate Professor of Anthropology Jessaca Leinaweaver’s study about “how international adoption and international immigration are similar and also how they are different,” Leinaweaver said.

Her study examined the experiences of Peruvian migrant workers living in Spain, as well as Peruvian children adopted there. Despite the commonly held belief that Spain is not a racist society, her study found underlying forms of racism that affected the experiences of adopted children.

These results “will help us to understand how racism works and make a more just society if we understand” how some minorities are treated, Leinaweaver said. They can also “raise awareness for adoptive families,” she added.

“There are plenty of problems that do not stop at our borders,” Faudree said. “I hope the committee will take a deeper look at the projects that happen to be based outside of the (United States).”

Two grants awarded to Michèle Smith, a research associate for the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, are also under scrutiny. The grants support Smith’s research on the relation between textiles and gender in the North Atlantic from ancient times to the early modern period. Smith declined to comment on her research or the review.


Implications for peer review

By law, Congress has a right to review the NSF — a federally funded research agency — and ensure that taxpayer money is appropriately spent.

But members of the NSF and Brown’s faculty are concerned that the way in which the House committee is going about the review could disrupt the peer review process, which is a model that countries around the world respect as a means to produce high-quality research, Savitz said.

“We’re a federal agency ­— we’re used to oversight,” Topousis said. But “we stand behind our merit review process.”

Since reviewers are unpaid for their service, they participate because they “believe in the process,” Faudree said.

In blind peer review, “peers do not know whom they are reviewing so there’s no bias,” Topousis said, adding that though no system is perfect, the peer review process has enabled great scientific discoveries.

Anonymity is especially important in situations where the proposal’s writers might be in a position of authority over the reviewers, or reviewers fear the political implications of criticizing the project of someone they may later need to work with, Faudree said.

While it is important that Congress assures that taxpayer money is spent productively, unmasking the privacy of reviewers could be destructive by making “the process political in a way that it is not now,” she added.

“The best work will clearly come out by having this peer-reviewed, objective evaluation,” Savitz said.


Impacts on Brown

Both Leinaweaver and Faudree expressed concerns about the impact of the investigation on the peer review process rather than their individual research.

The investigation “is sort of like a distraction — it means I have to be thinking about this when I could be doing research,” Leinaweaver said.

But the controversy has not discouraged University researchers from applying for NSF grants, Savitz, Leinaweaver and Faudree all said.

“Brown faculty are really on an uptick in terms of the applications to the NSF,” Savitz said. Though the current economic climate has caused more scarcity in grant money, 153 NSF grants were awarded to University researchers in 2014. Since 2010, the NSF has awarded between $1.5 million and $3.1 million for social science research projects and all social science research funding. In 2014, out of the $27.9 million awarded to the University by the NSF, $2.2 million went toward social science research.

One possible outcome of the investigation is that researchers may need to write grants with titles that more explicitly state how the grant will have global impact, Savitz said. “Increasingly there is value in the ability to explain (science) to people who are not experts,” he added.

The University has continued to advise and inform researchers whose grants are under review, Savitz said.

Other than this, little University action is required at the present as there is no concrete information on the duration of the congressional review or any possible outcomes, Savitz said.

Though two of the University research projects under review have already been completed, “the biggest concern of course is any potential for the withdrawing of funding for research that’s already been committed” to the other two ongoing projects, Savitz said. One of Smith’s two projects and Faudree’s project are both ongoing through August 2016, according to a public list of NSF grants under review. But the House committee has not articulated a threat of withdrawing funding from these projects, Savitz added, and University researchers remain most concerned about the implications of the investigation for the peer-review process as a whole, rather than their specific projects.

“We are doing what we can collectively with other academic institutions to try to avoid that kind of intrusion,” he said, adding that the strength of any University pushback of the review lies in the cooperation of a large number of research institutions and the AAU.

“It’s important that this be done in a collective way,” he said. “It’s not just one university in Rhode Island standing up.”


Due to an editing error, a quote from David Savitz was previously taken out of context: He said concern about the withdrawal of funding is just hypothetical and for the future, and that Brown is taking steps to avoid such a situation. Overall, researchers said they were concerned principally with effects on the peer-review process, not the withdrawal of funds. Due to an editing error, the article also previously misattributed a piece of information. The fact that most of the grants the committee will examine support social sciences research outside the United States comes from a publicly available list of grants on Science Direct, not the committee’s website. The Herald regrets the errors.


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