Lawrence Krauss & CFI—Protect Scientific Inquiry

May 16, 2013

May 16, 2013
The Honorable Lamar Smith, Chairman
Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
U.S. House of Representatives
2321 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515


Dear Mr. Chairman,
     We are writing on behalf of the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a nonprofit organization that
advocates for public policy based on reason, science, and secular values. Our letter concerns
your draft legislative proposal currently being cited as the “High Quality Research Act.” We
strongly believe that this measure is both unnecessary and potentially harmful to science
research supported by the United States government.
     As drafted, your bill would require a certification process for grants from the National
Science Foundation (NSF) that supersedes the peer review system that NSF has used so
successfully. Specifically, your bill would require the NSF director to certify that a research
project meets three criteria before awarding a grant to fund the project. The certification must
state that the project:
     (1) is in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or
welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
     (2) is the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems
that are of utmost importance to society at large, and;
     (3) is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other
federal science agencies.
     Your bill also suggests that these requirements be considered for all federal science agencies.
However, these requirements represent a serious misunderstanding of the nature of scientific
inquiry and discovery and, if approved, would not facilitate, but instead obstruct productive
scientific research.
     The NSF’s current process for reviewing applications for contract or grant funding is based
on the time-honored and scientifically sound principle of peer review. Under current NSF
procedures, a group of independent experts with specialized knowledge in a field of specific
scientific endeavor evaluates requests based on two main criteria: intellectual merit and
societal impact.
     Your bill would not improve this process, which is widely considered to be one of the most
successful science funding processes in the world and which has placed our nation at the
forefront of scientific advances; instead, it would burden this process with standards that
politicize science and fail to give proper weight to the importance of basic scientific research.
Applied science depends on basic scientific research. Important discoveries require the
foundation of a broad base of research. Research that the public might find insignificant - or
perhaps even incomprehensible - often proves to be of the utmost important to advancing
scientific knowledge. This is precisely why non-experts should not be in charge of deciding
the merits of science research.
     The High Quality Research Act also effectively requires the NSF director to be able to
predict which research will be groundbreaking. This confuses the processes of science with
prophecy. Groundbreaking discoveries are not something one can reliably foresee. The
history of groundbreaking scientific discoveries shows that they are often the result of basic
research which did not anticipate, and was not specifically designed to result in, critical
breakthroughs.
     In fact, research that is not necessarily intended to create a specific positive health,
technology, or economic outcome has often been shown to later serve a critical purpose.
     Consider just a few examples:
-­‐ The foundations of the World Wide Web, a system that has revolutionized human
education and communication, was first developed not for public consumption but to
allow physicists at the European Laboratory for Nuclear Research (otherwise known
as CERN) and officials at the Department of Defense to more easily communicate
electronically. And, as it turns out, NSF funding played a crucial role in implementing
the World Wide Web to a broader audience;
-­‐ At the turn of the last century, there was a discrepancy between the theories of heat
and light and the glow emitted by hot objects. Research into this theoretical field with
no apparent practical applications led to the development of the field of quantum
mechanics. Quantum mechanics is required for all modern electronics. It has been
estimated that half of the world’s economic activity is based on it;
-­‐ The advent of the pap smear, a screening test used to detect potentially pre-cancerous
and cancerous processes in the female reproductive system, was first discovered and
employed at Cornell University in 1915 during research into guinea pig sex cycles. It
was tested on human females years in 1920 and since then has saved untold
thousands-if not millions-of women;
-­‐ And, of course, there is the example of the laser, an incredibly productive invention,
with countless applications, that resulted from basic research into microwave
radiation.
     Research projects in basic science, which are screened and approved through a peer review
process, are absolutely essential for providing the tools for solving “problems that are of the
utmost importance to society at large”-which is, of course, one of the key goals of your
proposed measure.
     In light of these arguments, we respectfully request that you refrain from submitting your
draft proposal for official consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Thank you for your attention to this letter. Please do not hesitate to contact us.

Very truly yours,
Lawrence Krauss
Foundation Professor
School of Earth and Space Exploration
Director, Origins Project
Arizona State University
Honorary Board Member
Center for Inquiry
Ronald A. Lindsay Michael De Dora
President and CEO, Center for Inquiry Director, CFI - Office of Public Policy

CC: The Honorable Eddie Bernice Johnson
Ranking Member
Committee on Science, Space, and Technology