If the efforts by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to micromanage the NSF peer review process and end NSF funding of political science research respectively were not enough indication that there is currently an element of congress that is not particularly friendly toward funding research, now we find Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) second-guessing the peer review process at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
Sen. Sessions Questions NEH Peer Review Process
Sen. Sessions noted several specific awards under the NEH Enduring Questions program, the value of which he questioned in a letter to acting agency chair Carole M. Watson. These awards, around $25,000 each, are intended to “support faculty members in the teaching and development of a new course that will foster intellectual community through the study of an enduring question.” Sen. Sessions lists seven specific awards and “question[s] the appropriateness of such grants.”
In his letter, he also challenged the appropriateness of funding to “distribute books related to Islam to over 900 libraries across the United States” and related activities that are part of NEH’s Bridging Cultures program. Sen. Sessions asked for a list of peer reviewers and an explanation of the peer review process in general as well as for specific information on the Bridging Cultures program. From Sen. Sessions letter:
“One would think that NEH takes a fair and balanced approach to promoting culture. Please provide an itemized list, over the last five years, of all spending related to Christianity (e.g., Protestantism—Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal—or Catholicism) or Judaism where books or forums promoting one point of view were provided to libraries, etc.”
Perhaps Sen. Sessions has missed the entire point of the Bridging Cultures program, which, rather than promoting one culture over another, “engages the power of the humanities to promote understanding and mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives within the United States and abroad.”
In his letter to Acting Chair Watson, Sen. Sessions says, “I affirm the value of the humanities, but we all recognize that care and discipline must be exercised by any government agency that decides to favor certain projects over others.” All meritorious research projects can never be funded regardless of how many dollars are allocated to that purpose. Especially in times of significant budget limitations, some projects necessarily are favored over others – and that’s where the peer review process comes into play. Experts in various fields determine which proposed projects are likely to generate the most significant results. Much energy is devoted to ensuring that the peer review process at NEH and other agencies is as blind to politics and personalities as possible.
Sen. Sessions notes that the House of Representatives has proposed ‘to cut NEH funding by almost 50 percent’ for FY 2014 implying that he favors a similar approach for the Senate. The appropriate role for Congress is to set the level of research funding – not to determine which projects are meritorious and deserving of funding within a given program area. I hope that our elected representatives in Congress continue to recognize the value of research to the long-term vitality of our country and I applaud the efforts of organizations such as the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) to educate congress and the American public through programs such as their Stand Up for Science! video competition.