America's economic strength -- and the jobs that flow from it -- are closely tied to the scientific and technological advances of our nation. Protecting and maintaining America's scientific preeminence should, therefore, be a top priority of the U.S. government. Yet the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space, and Technology -- under the leadership of Chairman Lamar Smith -- is raising concerns about putting political interests ahead of scientific inquiry.
Congressman Smith has taken the unprecedented action of requesting to review some 60 research grants issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and of asking that Members of the Committee have "access to the scientific/technical reviews and the Program Officers Review Analysis" for a series of projects funded by the NSF. While Congress and taxpayers should certainly know how public dollars are being spent, interfering with the independence and privacy of the scientific review process is not in our national interest. Scientists -- not politicians -- should be making the decisions on how scientific research money is being put to use.
Last month, the Association of American Universities -- of which Stony Brook University, which I lead, is a member -- issued a statement protesting the intrusion. It said in part, "Congress has a duty to conduct constructive oversight of federal agency activities, and federal agencies such as NSF need to be transparent about their processes for reviewing and selecting grants. Our concern is that the Committee's current inquiry into the value of selected NSF grants, based primarily on their titles, is far from constructive. In fact, it is having a destructive effect on NSF and on the merit review process that is designed to fund the best research and to remove those decisions from the political process."
Congress has a long history of trying to score political points -- and poke some fun -- by railing about obscure-sounding titles of research grants. Former Senator William Proxmire made a national name for himself by presenting an annual Golden Fleece Award to the funniest-sounding research funded by the federal government. To counter-balance that instinct, the Golden Goose Awards have since been created to highlight obscure-sounding research that has led to transformational breakthroughs. Americans can decide for themselves whether they'd rather have a quick laugh or the life-saving benefits of strange-sounding scientific research.
One of the most consistently surprising aspects of scientific research is that truly transformational discoveries often come from unexpected places. That reality stems from the fact that many such discoveries are based on developments not previously imagined. Often they arise when scientists explore questions of basic research -- sometimes in an unconnected field -- and stumble upon a discovery with far broader implications.
A good example involves research in which Stony Brook University is now involved. Renowned anthropologist Patricia Wright, PhD, is acclaimed for her pivotal role in saving the lemurs of Madagascar, for which she recently won the coveted Indianapolis Prize, the top award in animal conservation. As a Stony Brook faculty member, she has been instrumental in creating a 106,000-acre national park in the rainforest of Madagascar and in building Stony Brook's research facility -- Centre ValBio- - there.
At Centre ValBio, Dr. Wright and her colleagues are studying the genomes of 1,000 mouse lemurs to understand the genetic basis for a surprising discovery made by a French research group in Paris - that mouse lemurs experience an age-related dementia that clinically and pathologically resembles Alzheimer's disease. Lemurs suffer from this form of dementia when in captivity but not when in the wild and, as primates, may be important to understanding the human disease. Dr. Wright and her team are also testing the components of the mouse lemurs' diet to see if there are preventatives of Alzheimer's in their diet in the wild. This research may well hold crucial keys to combating Alzheimer's disease, to reducing its crushing impact and even eventually to curing it.
It's easy to imagine how a politician looking for a quick political score could poke fun at studying Alzheimer's disease in lemurs in Madagascar. But then the question re-appears: Would Americans rather have the quick laugh or a better understanding of such a devastating disease?
In a recent letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education on this issue, Congressman Smith wrote: "Congressional oversight isn't a threat or a punishment; it is helpful. What federal agency has been harmed by too much public knowledge and accountability?" But the issue is not public knowledge and accountability; it's concern about political interference.
Research by Stony Brook University faculty members played an important role in contributing to the scientific basis of climate change that was used in the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for which it received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. That peer-reviewed research was partially funded by the NSF, but one cannot help but wonder if it would have survived political "oversight".
America is leading the world in scientific discoveries and technological advances, and key to that is the independence of the scientific process that has served American innovation so well in the past. It's essential to protect that process and ensure that scientific merit, as determined by scientific peers, continues to be the primary criterion for awarding federal research grants.
If not, we will place in jeopardy the legacy of transformational discoveries for which America is renowned and on which so many American jobs depend. And that is no laughing matter.
The author, a physician and medical researcher, is President of Stony Brook University.