Joint research to be subject to US rules, admits ESRC chief

Washington’s ‘national interest’ restrictions on social science will affect bilateral projects

Social science projects jointly funded by the UK research councils and the US National Science Foundation under a new agreement will have to abide by recent politically imposed restrictions on the kinds of projects that the American body may fund, it has been confirmed.

The admission by Economic and Social Research Council chief executive Paul Boyle came in the wake of a new pact between Research Councils UK and the NSF that will empower the agency being asked for the larger tranche of funding to make funding decisions on behalf of both.

Professor Boyle said that joint projects between UK and US researchers already accounted for about £1.5 billion in funding. But he noted that the new Lead Agency Agreement, which runs until 2018 and applies only to investigator-initiated proposals, would avoid the inefficiency and “double jeopardy” of requiring proposals to be accepted by both agencies.

The new arrangements, which come into effect on 5 September, will be piloted by the NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) directorate, whose remit for the US corresponds to that of the UK’s ESRC and Arts and Humanities Research Council as well as to parts of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The SBE recently indicated that it would not fund any more political science research this year, following a provision added to the 2013 federal spending bill by a Republican senator that requires the NSF to restrict political science funding to projects that are deemed to be vital to national security or to furthering US economic interests. The agency is reportedly still considering how to interpret this rule.

Republicans have also introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would require all NSF-supported research to “advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense”.

‘National interest’ rule may stretch

In an article published in the journal Science in August, Professor Boyle said that such moves amounted to an “attack” on US social science.

He told THE that if the NSF concluded that the new rules prevented it from supporting certain kinds of research, joint proposals in those areas could not be funded even if a UK funder were the lead agency.

However, he said he doubted that the NSF would deem itself to be bound to fund only research that could be narrowly defined as being in the US national interest.

For any bilateral research partnership, researchers will continue to be funded by their respective national agencies, and the agreement requires the lead agency to make “good faith efforts” to use reviewers for grant proposals suggested by the other agency.

But Professor Boyle denied that this procedure was indicative of a lingering deficit of mutual trust. Rather, he said, it ensured that proposals were reviewed by the best possible referees.

Other research councils and NSF directorates were interested in extending the lead agency mechanism into their own areas if the pilot were judged successful, Professor Boyle noted.

RCUK would also consider establishing similar agreements with other countries, he said, but only where a potential partner country already had in place similar academic standards and peer review mechanisms, and where there was likely to be a roughly similar level of demand from its academics.

“The US is clearly the nation we collaborate with most strongly, and the NSF is a very natural partner for us. That is why we have gone with them first,” Professor Boyle observed.

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