Leave Judging Science in the Hands of Scientists

By Ann Bonham, Ph.D.

Debates over who decides research priorities and how; and who decides what research should be funded by the federal government and how, are not new. They reflect competing views on the relative quality, priority, and appropriateness of research undertaken by scientists in this country. Sometimes, the debates veer into perilous territory. You may recall the infamous Golden Fleece Awards, which singled out projects funded by federal dollars as “wasteful” or “misguided.” The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) — two of the world’s most respected funding agencies supporting a broad spectrum of science and the scientific review process itself — invariably are called to task  during these debates.

Recent activities in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee raise some concern that Congress may take steps to insert an additional (Congressional) layer of review of research projects funded by the NSF and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A discussion draft of the proposed bill, dubbed the “High Quality Research Act,” suggests that such requirements for additional Congressional review be extended to cover other federal science agencies, including the NIH.

In the simplest terms, this proposed bill would place decisions about the quality, priority, and appropriateness of scientific research into the hands of members of Congress. It positions them to second-guess decisions made by scientists and agencies that have been responsible for advancing incredible discoveries: discoveries that have increased the lifespan of patients with cardiovascular disease, created new life-saving vaccines, practically eliminated deaths from some forms of childhood cancer, and numerous other breakthroughs.

Congressional incursions into ruling on critical areas of research will effectively upend the entire process for identifying and supporting research priorities, which thus far has distinguished the United States as a global leader in research. Certainly, scientific review, like any human endeavor, is not perfect, but let’s look at just one result of the current process, which is founded on partnerships across our federal funding agencies and scientists across the nation.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for her research on telomeres and telomerase, research she conducted on single-celled organisms otherwise known as “pond scum.” This work, evaluated over many years by scientific review, has launched new strategies in treating diseases and conditions such as blindness, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer. One wonders if Dr. Blackburn’s research on pond scum would have passed muster today with some members of Congress, based on the criteria outlined in the draft High Quality Research Act.

The scientific community welcomes Congress’s commitment to high quality science. We are all accountable to the public for stewardship of their dollars and for providing research in their interest. This requires all of us to do what we do best and work together. Scientists must communicate to Congress and the public the value of science that improves the health and well-being of the nation.

Congress must also do what it does best: to establish policies and resources that sustain funding for high quality science and to trust the scientists and federal funding agencies to assess the quality, priority, and appropriateness of the resulting research.

—Ann Bonham, Ph.D. is Chief Scientific Officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges. She can be reached at abonham@aamc.org.


Vivian Lee, MD, Dean of the University of Utah School of Medicine and CEO of University of Utah Health Care, speaks on the importance of academic medical research and stewardship of national fiscal resources.

19 thoughts on “Leave Judging Science in the Hands of Scientists

  1. One of the reasons the research sector in the US is so handcuffed is precisely BECAUSE of non-scientists getting their hands on the machinery. I believe that patients should have a voice in medical research, when it gets to the point of possible human betterment. Congress? Oh good GRIEF no! They can’t agree on the definition of “the” and “and” – I don’t believe their own sentience, as a group, has achieved the level of pond scum as I write this …

    1. medical research is replete with association studies that show no cause and effect, my first exposure to the problem with association studies was in a graduate econ class in the 1960’s, the teacher used the example of a very strong correlation between the production of pig iron at a steel mill and the birth of pigs on the farms. there is a reason why there is a strong correlation but the reason is not that one causes the other or visa-versa. is coffee good, bad or neutral. I do not read medical studies but I will bet there have been studies that suggests all three possibilities

  2. A critical reason why scientists need to work closely with communication professionals to explain their research to the public through media and social media channels. Too often talking to reporters or blogging about a recent study is considered a nice to do rather than a must do. Good communication is a key part of accountability to the public and to Congress.

  3. if good scientists were 100 percent correct all of the time, if there were no cheating scientists, no dumb scientists, no scientists whose work was highly influenced by self interest, we would not have a problem. the pound scum story is cute but I will bet in her proposals the scientist who did the work did not head the proposal, a study of pond scum or if she did did a good job of explaining what pond scum was if she even used those two words

  4. I realize that anyone reading my previous comments might think that I believe congress can judge proposals from scientists. There might be a few congress people who realize that have no business in this area but that is doubtful. Is it possible to find another organization the size of congress with a higher percentage of incompetent people than congress. I doubt it, except maybe some other political organizations.

  5. Great essay. The High Quality Research Act seems designed to ensure just the opposite by diverting research time and funding into a series of congressional reports, never to be read. Par for the course for members of Congress who oppose reliance on science in public policy.

  6. I couldn’t agree more. In today’s climate of partisanship and science denial, Congress should not insert themselves into micromanaging scientific issues they are not qualified to make decisions on. Their advice will come from lobbyists and special interest groups.

  7. If congress was as concerned and insightful about its own business as it is about that of scientists, this would be a better country.

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  9. I agree with the previous respondents to this essay by Dr. Bonham, that members of Congress are not equipped with the expertise nor I might add the aptitude to make ‘decisions about the quality, priority, and appropriateness of scientific research.’ It should be obvious to everyone that there has been amazing progress in medical science over the last several decades. This progress is in large part due to the peer-review system that is currently in place. My question is, why is Congress even putting forth this “High quality Research Act” which appears to be another layer of bureaucracy? How do the members of Congress expect to improve the quality of medical science by second guessing scientists who have spent their lives doing research and who in fact do have the expertise evaluate scientific research? Perhaps scientific progress is not what Congress has in mind.

    1. you want congress to change a 2000 page badly flawed piece of legislation, what the house is trying to do is get rid of it so we can get a realistic piece of legislation. it does pass in the house

  10. I agree science should be left in the hands of scientists who then bear the responsibility for explaining its value to the lay population (including congress). To the multiple reasons already enumerated, I would add this one: in order to be a critical thinker and evaluate the soundness of a research proposal – whether the field is the synthesis of novel anti-cancer drugs, anti-microbial polymers, or new ways of detoxifying environmental contaminants – you have to be steeped in the science, on the front lines, reading all of the relevant literature, attending conferences, etc. Science at this level is not a part time job.

  11. It used to be called magic. Fingolimod is a drug derived from a fungus that was once used in traditional Chinese medicine as an “eternal youth” curative. Now marketed as Gilenya, it is an oral medication used to reduce the frequency of exacerbations for Multiple Sclerosis patients. After ten years of giving myself injections, I was pleased there was finally an alternative. The NIH and the FDA looked at the data, asked questions, made recommendations, and the FDA approved the drug based on one of the largest trials ever made on an MS drug. Back when they practiced magic, I would have gone to the hut at the edge of the village. The old woman would have given me powdered elm bark for my headache, and maybe a little eternal life mushroom. Her knowlege came from her own community of wise experts. Now I’m walking very slowly with my cane, so I don’t have time for the folks in the Hut of Congress to delay my medicine with the High Quality Research Act. (And don’t even get me started on the Insurance Hut.) What science can do is modern-day magic. There are more wise-guys in Congress than wise experts. They are not scientists and they need to keep their noses out of scientific decision-making.

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