the importance of peer review

Revisiting the FIPSE issue:
When politicians intervene in the awarding of grants for academic work, it’s never good news. Federal grant programs–which, in addition to FIPSE, include the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities–are usually competitive; grants are judged through a process called peer review (see Wikipedia entry) by volunteer scholars who are experts in the field. So if you submit a FIPSE application that is related to, say, environmental science, the program administrators try to get people who are experts in environmental science to review your proposal. These experts make their recommendation to the program administrators, who then make the decision on whether to fund your application.
You would think that someone with as much experience in the federal government as Ralph Regula (R-OH) would understand how the system works. But here’s what he says in the Chronicle of Higher Education article:

“Fipse doesn’t have all the knowledge in the world,” Mr. Regula said. “The bureaucracy in Washington doesn’t always have the last word on what is valuable to society.”

That’s right. That’s why FIPSE asks experts in the relevant field to review the applications. Regula is either ignorant or lying when he says he thinks “[t]he bureaucracy in Washington” is deciding whether to fund these projects.
This is where it gets really good: under the old system, bureaucrats in Washington did not judge the proposals. Under the new system, justified by Regula’s bureaucrat-bashing rhetoric, they do. Oh, irony, thy name is Republican Party!
This sets a dangerous precedent. FIPSE isn’t really that generously funded a program, but the NSF is, and the NEH is no small potatoes, either. Imagine what would happen if Congress gets used to the idea of taking over funding decisions–in other words, taking away the current, peer-reviewed process. Might we start to see funding dwindle even more for scientific research that contradicts conservative dogma regarding the origin of species or human sexual behavior? Perhaps the NEH will no longer support work on writers who don’t represent family values.

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