High Quality Research Act, And Research Duplication

Here’s a post from David Bruggeman about a proposed bill.

The High Quality Research Act is a draft bill from Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Still not officially introduced, it has prompted a fair amount of teeth gnashing and garment rending over what it might mean. The bill would require the Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to certify that the research it funds would: serve the national interests, be of the highest quality, and is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the federal government. The bill would also prompt a study to see how such requirements could be implemented in other federal science agencies.

There’s a lot there to explore, including how the bill fits into recent inquiries about specific research grants made by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the NSF. (One nice place to check on this is the AmericanScience team blog.)

But what this bill has brought to my mind is that it brings the alleged tradeoff between research autonomy and research accountability into stronger relief (at least for those of us who research and analyze these things. The advocates are in combat mode). The goals of the bill – certifying that the research serves the national interests – could be interpreted as being contrary to the notions of blue sky or basic research. If the research must be linked to a national interest, how can it be done without concern for eventual applications?

My opinion…just the non-duplicative aspect would be powerful. Maybe there could be a small incentive for those who identify duplication? Because right now the only check seems to be the research panels, who often have not read the literature relevant to a specific proposal, and there is no mechanism for them to be aware of other government funded research in the area.

Just one example. You can check the NSF database here…just type in the topic you are interested in. I typed in “spruce beetle” and got a list..

This is the information for one study, and below, the abstract for one:

This collaborative research project will address the following questions about interactions between wildfire and spruce beetle outbreaks under varying climate and their consequences for ecosystem services: (1) How does climatic variation affect the initiation and spread of spruce beetle outbreaks across complex landscapes? (2) How does prior disturbance by windstorm, logging, and fire affect the subsequent occurrence and severity of spruce beetle outbreak? (3) In the context of a recently warmed climate, how do spruce beetle outbreaks affect forest structure and composition? (4) How do spruce beetle outbreaks affect fuels and potential wildfire activity under varying climatic conditions? (5) How will climate change and the climate-sensitive disturbances of wildfire and spruce beetle activity affect future ecosystem services in the subalpine zone of the southern Rocky Mountains under varying scenarios of adaptive forest management? The first four questions will be addressed through empirical research, including extensive tree-ring reconstructions of past disturbances, re-measurement of permanent forest plots, field measurements of effects of spruce beetle outbreaks on fuels, fire behavior modeling, and spatiotemporal analyses of the spread of recent spruce beetle outbreaks. The fifth question will be examined through simulation modeling of future forest conditions and their consequences for key selected ecosystem services, including biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and resilience to environmental change.

Not to pick on Kulakowski at Worcester, or even on NSF (which studies everything regardless of what other agencies study it, except perhaps NIH) but it makes me think that perhaps folks at the Forest Service and USGS around here are probably also studying some of these same topics?

It would be interesting to FOIA the peer review documents and see what the reviewers had to say about how this research fits in to ongoing federal research on the topic and how useful it will be. Because after all, there are not a lot of management choices…

5 Comments

  1. Hi Sharon,

    For me, a challenge with tackling duplicative research is making sure to distinguish between instances of the same exact thing being done in two places and instances of different researchers/research teams approaching the same question or questions.

    Additionally, I don’t want such interest in avoiding duplicative research to prevent replication studies from being funding. I certainly wouldn’t want it to prevent research findings from being revisited in light of new tools, methods or information that would prompt rethinking accepted understandings.

    But there is no coordination across agencies that I am aware of, and that’s not a good thing. It’s certainly not something the Office of Science and Technology Policy seems interested in (historically), and I think part of this comes from the unfortunate tension between research autonomy and research accountability that appears embedded in modern research rhetoric.

  2. David, there are many questions here… but my fundamental issue is that I think proposals should have a section called “how my work is related to other ongoing work” .If you skip someone or have an incomplete review of work, your proposal is downgraded. Of course, since there is no central way to find out, this would be hard.

    I think one of the research programs I worked on might have had that. Also, I would like to see claims from research scientists that “results will be helpful to management” reviewed by the scientists working for managers.

    IMHO, politicians are afraid of being labelled as “anti-science” if they ask for accountability. It’s really pretty scary how poorly the whole enterprise is managed and how much money is wasted (except that people are employed, which is good).

  3. Sharon,
    I don’t think we’re that far apart here. Duplication is an issue, but it strikes me as a bit more complicated than the bill would likely treat it.

    I’d love to see the connections between researchers’ work made more explicit, and I’m not sure that there’s a best way to do that. A requirement to include it in the grant proposal would at least test how well the researchers do their literature review, but even the most conscientious will miss some linkages (especially across disciplines). It might be something suited for a separate institution with staff dedicated to intensive bibliographic work.

    The anti-science epithet is problematic, certainly in part because science advocates have no problem throwing it about. It’s part of why I think the whole war on science crowd is a self-destructive lot – it discourages outside review of the enterprise.

  4. David, I kind of see that as a program manager’s responsibility… now suppose that Congress said “one or two agencies are in charge of each kind of research”. so you determined trees.. spruce beetles… if basic, it goes to NSF.

    If there is a glimmer of “this could help in the real world” as per assertions in the proposal, it would go to the appointed agencies’ program manager (s), who would be familiar with the state of the science and who is doing what federally, because they would review and fund all federal research on the topic. they would have a group on call to review for accuracy of “helpful to the real world” claims.

    A couple of stories.. I was a Commerce Science and Technology Fellow, and we were touring Lawrence Livermore. DOE was sequencing the human genome. I asked why that was a research topic for DOE. The tour guide replied that when DOE worked on radiation, it had an impact on genetics, so now (then) they still studied it..

    Also, I think it’s a bit farcical that most agencies can’t lobby, but DOE can because the national labs are contractors and not government employees. When I was at OSTP, Los Alamos wanted to get into fire research (after the fires there, I think they scented money as well as smoke in the air). A marketing person from the contractors came to visit me …I asked innocently “but doesn’t the Forest Service already do work on fire?” The person from the contractor said “yes but they are not physicists, clearly we are better.” Of course, I knew that some FS fire scientists are physicists, but if I hadn’t been on loan from the FS, the spiel might have sounded convincing.

    Which kind of circles around to why I don’t like the FS using concessionaires- when others can lobby (DOE labs, FS concessionaires) and the agency can’t, it creates its own policy weather, and I don’t think in a good way.

  5. While I am sure that it is valuable to study the effects of 80’s-era intensive logging practices, in no way are those results applicable to today’s public forest management debates. All too often, such studies are trumpeted as proof that logging is always bad. Around here, we haven’t used those practices for 20 years.

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