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Nicholas Warner Headshot

The Scientific Star Chamber?

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Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Ima
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Ima

Buried in the pile of colorful junk mail advertising realtors and cheap toilet paper lies an object of dread: a summons to jury duty. Experience of the jury process seems to sap one's life force and erase days from one's life. On a smaller scale, several times a year I am asked to participate in peer reviews of research proposals in theoretical physics, and just as with a jury summons, my immediate thought is that I have much better things to do with my time. And yet, on more sober reflection, I realize that really I do not. Like jury trials, scientific peer reviews can be time-consuming, tedious and even unpleasant, but the alternatives are all much, much worse.

Imagine a world in which juries or scientific panels are populated by political appointment or are directed to make findings based upon a political agenda. This conjures images of police states or the worst totalitarian regimes in which the government and centralization of authority are more important than individual people. Politically motivated panels make decisions based upon criteria that have no business in any ethical or objective discussion of evidence.

A politician who proposes politicizing a jury would rightly be pilloried by the court of public opinion and should never hold political office again.

And yet the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), has been proposing to do this to scientists. He has singled out several pieces of funded research that he evidently believes are a waste of taxpayers' money, and, based upon his assessment, he has decided to undermine and compromise the peer-review process through which the National Science Foundation (NSF) decides whether to support various basic research programs. Peer review in science has much in common with trial by jury, except that the goal of the former is to reward excellence rather than to punish malfeasance. Indeed, the core concept of the jury trial, originating with the early Norman kings of England, is "trial by one's peers," and the principles are the same for juries and peer reviewers: common sense, good judgment and impartial analysis of information to determine the truth, value and consequences of an activity.

These were also the goals of 15th-century England's Star Chamber, a panel that was intended to ensure fair and equal enforcement of the law. However, through political influence, the Star Chamber became synonymous with arbitrary and oppressive judgments made in secrecy that violated individual rights and freedoms. The very real fear is that political agendas will similarly corrupt the process of scientific review.

Failure to champion or implement any constructive ideas often leads politicians to distract the public by misdirecting their frustrations, and sometimes politicians do this by holding up some piece of scientific research for ridicule. On very rare occasions they are correct, but more often they have failed to understand simple background information that shows that the thing they ridicule is, in fact, in the best interest of science and society.

Sarah Palin notoriously observed, "[S]ometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good, things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not."

The fruit fly in question, Drosophila melanogaster, has a life cycle of about 2 weeks and lays about 10 to 20 eggs in a batch. From this simple piece of knowledge, one can understand why Drosophila are so important: Within a year, a scientist can study the evolution and mutations of vast numbers of offspring over 25 generations, and that scientist can do such genetic experiments without all the ethical issues involved in the study of more complex organisms. Drosophila is to the geneticist what a wrench is to a mechanic: an essential, basic tool of their profession. For a peer reviewer, this kind of knowledge is the "common sense" of his or her profession.

Scientists, through their training, come to possess a highly specialized body of such "common sense": hundreds if not thousands of basic, contextual pieces of knowledge that inform their decisions in making judgments about their colleagues and their work. This is why meaningful scientific review must involve peers, and why those without that basic but essential body of knowledge can make elementary errors of judgment.

Amongst other more subtly ridiculous things, Rep. Smith's bill would require that projects not be "duplicative" of other federally funded work. This sounds very reasonable if it is applied to federal contractors. However, one of the most crucial parts of the scientific method requires repeated tests of hypotheses and further verification of results by independent researchers. Rep. Smith's legislation would literally forbid the NSF from supporting the scientific method.

Rep. Smith goes on to argue that the NSF should only fund projects that "advance the national health, prosperity or welfare" or "secure the national defense." Again, this sounds reasonable, and it is important that government does this, but this is far too narrow a remit for the NSF and other funding agencies.

The NSF was created in 1950, and its mission, to support basic, curiosity-driven science, was the vision of Vannevar Bush. In "Science: The Endless Frontier," a report commissioned by President Roosevelt and given to President Truman in 1945, Vannevar Bush conveyed some of the most important central truths about basic science:

Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws.



...



Many of the most important discoveries have come as a result of experiments undertaken with very different purposes in mind. Statistically it is certain that important and highly useful discoveries will result from some fraction of the undertakings in basic science; but the results of any one particular investigation cannot be predicted with accuracy.



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A nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill.

Had James Clerk Maxwell been motivated, or funded, by Rep. Smith's paradigms and worked to improve the communications technology of his day and tried to find ways to intercept military signals, he would have bred better carrier pigeons and trained peregrine falcons. Instead, motivated entirely by curiosity, he worked on something that would yield precious little technological benefit for decades: By 1865 Maxwell had figured out the fundamental laws of electromagnetism, and in so doing, he laid down the basis of all 20th-century telecommunications technology.

Since its creation, the NSF has become one of the most effective government agencies, and one in which we can all take pride. It has been copied and emulated in many countries, and the success of the NSF and other similar federal agencies, like the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health, has led many talented young researchers around the world to make their careers and innovations in the United States.

There are important policy issues in funding basic science, and one of them is implicitly raised by the list of projects identified by Rep. Smith: Should the NSF be funding social science? The NSF, like any large organization, will also occasionally make mistakes, but it is certainly unclear whether Rep. Smith has been any more successful in finding one than Sarah Palin has been. These issues are also best addressed by peer review, and they should not be used as an excuse by politicians to rewrite the charter of basic science funding and legislate against the scientific method any more than the occasional controversial jury decision should be used as an excuse to destroy the foundation of our system of justice.

Ultimately, the congressman's proposals for the NSF distract us, and him, from the financial incompetence of Congress: The entire budget of the NSF is a drop in the bucket compared with the sequester, and compared with the scale of the budget compromise that needs to be made. Rather than try to micromanage issues in which he has very limited competency, Rep. Smith should focus his skills where he can be most effective and perform the public service for which he was elected by finding good political compromises and passing a federal budget.

Politicians are driven by imperatives other than truth and value. Their primary concern is typically reelection. What makes juries and peer review so much more effective is that almost no one actually wants the job, so the ultimate motivation is civic responsibility; juries thus tend to be more disinterested and objective and, in the end, motivated by doing the greater good for their society. Politics is often the antithesis of this: As Douglas Adams observed, "anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job." While this ideal is sadly unattainable in politics, it is alive and functioning very well when it comes to peer review and juries.

So when I receive yet another request to do a peer review, just like when I receive another jury summons, I will grit my teeth and resent the distraction from what I would rather be doing but knuckle down and do my duty to the scientific community, because I know that the alternatives, such as a scientific Star Chamber, are indeed far, far worse.

Disclaimer: In the interests of full disclosure, my research in theoretical physics is supported by the University of Southern California (USC) and in part by grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of USC or the DOE.