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Merit Review: Ensuring Gold-Standard Science Around the Globe

Summary: 
Three years ago, President Obama spoke at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., and called upon American scientists and engineers to work more closely with the international science community, even as he committed to boosting investment in domestic science and technology to new heights.

Three years ago, President Obama spoke at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., and called upon American scientists and engineers to work more closely with the international science community, even as he committed to boosting investment in domestic science and technology to new heights. That call for international collaboration resonated with U.S. researchers and research institutions for a number of reasons.

First, as the President noted, science, technology, and innovation often proceed more rapidly when creative minds from varied backgrounds share their insights. Second, especially in these economically trying times, more can be done when costs and risks are broadly shared. And third, a growing number of the challenges being addressed by science and technology—energy independence, better healthcare at lower cost, and improved food security, among others—are global in character.

Yet international collaboration poses unique challenges. Among the most important is the uneven commitment among nations to the highest standards of “merit review”—the gold-standard practice by which research proposals are judged by researchers’ peers to determine in a fair and evidence-based manner whether those proposals are worthy.

Without merit review, science funding is ever at risk of falling prey to social biases or political agendas. Experts simply can’t be beat when it comes to assessing the likelihood that a proposed experiment will deliver the intellectual and material goods it promises.

That’s why it is so significant that, for the first time ever, the heads of the primary science-funding agencies from nearly 50 countries will gather in Arlington, Va., on May 14 and 15 to craft and release a common set of merit-review principles and to create a Global Research Council to develop additional best practices for collaboration. The six principles they will initially agree to—which assert the essential value of expert assessment, transparency, impartiality, appropriateness, confidentiality, and integrity and ethics—are critical to putting the global research enterprise on a shared foundation that will not only enhance the quality of science but also bolster public trust in that science.

Merit review is not a uniquely American practice. But U.S. research-funding institutions such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the nation’s largest funder of non-biomedical research in all fields of science and engineering and the convener of this week’s Merit Review Summit, are renowned for their strict adherence to it. The process depends upon thousands of subject-matter experts volunteering a few days per year to sit in modest meeting rooms and rank in a fair, transparent, and competitive manner the quality of various research proposals—more than 40,000 of which are submitted every year to the NSF alone. It is a painstaking endeavor but the result is clear: basic research selected for funding by the NSF has led directly to cell-phone technology, MRI scanners, and the Google search engine, to name just a few outcomes that today are valued in the billions of dollars, generating entirely new industries and countless jobs.

Why should Americans care if other nations commit to the principles of merit review? For one, U.S. researchers competing for global funds risk losing their fair share if other governments do not ensure merit-based review of U.S. proposals. For another, U.S. collaborators are put at risk if their partners are not committed to ethical standards and scientific integrity. And U.S. economic interests can be seriously harmed by colleagues or competitors who do not respect confidentiality and intellectual property.

By contrast, with broad agreement on the principles underlying merit review, American scientists can take full advantage of the free exchange of information that has long fueled scientific progress, even as they collaborate with colleagues in far-flung nations that—ready or not—are investing more and more in science and technology. We already know that the global scientific community’s appetite for international collaboration is strong: 32% of U.S. research articles in 2010 were internationally coauthored, up from 23% in 2000. And the number of science and engineering articles in which U.S. researchers shared authorship with foreign researchers more than doubled between 1995 and 2010.

There is no better time for the world’s nations to agree on common standards for merit review. In today’s global economy, good science anywhere in the world is good for science—and good for people—everywhere in the world.  

John P. Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  Subra Suresh is Director of the National Science Foundation.