Saturday, April 05, 2008

Merit Review v. Earmarks

Let's look at a merit review procedure for awarding academic research grants and a the way in which one earmark was awarded to Penn State.

Consider the National Science Foundation (NSF) merit review procedure for the awarding of research grants. It has nine steps, but only the first seven are relevant to the merit assessment of the proposal. Step one is the announcement, via the Web, of funding opportunities at NSF. In step two, a scientist prepares a grant proposal according to NSF guidelines and sends it to the NSF. The third step is the review of the proposal for adherence to the proposal guidelines-number of pages, formatting instructions,.... If the proposal does not adhere it is returned, otherwise it is routed to the appropriate Program Officer within the NSF and the scientist is notified. In step four,
NSF Program Officers identify at least three external reviewers to review the proposal. The review may be conducted by ad hoc reviewers, a panel of experts, or a combination of both. For some programs, site visits are also conducted. Some categories of proposals may not be externally reviewed. For example, proposals for Small Grants for Exploratory Research are internally reviewed only. For some other categories of proposals (for example, proposals for international travel), NSF staff have the option of conducting internal review only. In addition, Program Officers are also responsible for identifying potentially disqualifying conflicts of interest among reviewers. (See GPG, Chapter II, Exhibit II-2.)

GPG, Chapter III.B. Selection of Reviewers provides the NSF guidelines for reviewer selection. These guidelines are designed to ensure that the reviewers selected are experts in their field and will provide program officers with the proper information needed to make a recommendation in accordance with the National Science Board approved merit review criteria for projects.
The fifth step is the review of the proposal by the reviewers. They look at all proposals for intellectual merit and broad impact and on occasions may use other criteria. The analysis and evaluation of the reviewers is returned to the Program Officer, who, in step six, makes a recommendation to the appropriate Division Director to fund or decline to fund the proposal. At step seven, the Division Director makes the final decision on funding the proposal and the scientist is notified of the decision. Steps eight and nine are budget stuff.

There is a great deal of transparency in the process. If a proposal is not funded the review information is made available to the scientist. This can help the scientist to refine the proposal for resubmission at a latter date. If a proposal is funded its abstract along with the amount of money awarded is posted online. You can peruse the database here.

Next lets look at how a large research contract was awarded to Penn State via an earmark back in 2001.
The U.S. Navy on Thursday awarded Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory an unprecedented contract that could be worth $814 million over 10 years for research and development of submarine weapons and technology.


The contract calls for an initial five years worth $368,822,692, with an option to extend it for another five years worth $813,699,349, according to the Department of Navy.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn Hills, was instrumental is helping ARL land the lucrative contract, according to his aides.

A 1980 Penn State grad, Santorum is a member of the Armed Services Committee, as well as the land and air subcommittee.

"Penn State and ARL have a long and positive history of doing excellent work for the Navy," said Susan Parrick, a spokeswoman for Santorum. "Based on that track record, they were awarded the contract."

The contract -- which was awarded without any other bids being solicited -- calls for about 3.4 million staff hours of research and development and specialized engineering services.

"That's a lot of man hours," said Parrick.
The average yearly amount of the award in its first five years is $73,764,538. Transparency? Try to find out any details about the research this money funded. Oh and for comparison, the average yearly amount of money awarded to Penn State researchers by NSF in those five years (2002-2006) was $46,128,000. No wonder Graham loves earmarks.

Let's review the earmark process for awarding research funding. Rick, a PSU alumnus and non-scientist, thought ARL did good work and he gave them the money without any competition.

Which process do you think produces better science?

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