Accountability and Transparency

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Science  17 Apr 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5925, pp. 313
DOI: 10.1126/science.1174215

There is great excitement in the U.S. scientific community accompanying the arrival of the new president and his views on the role of science in society. Many people feel that the climate for science has turned 180 degrees. Science has gone from seeming at times to be disregarded or treated as unimportant or even annoying, to again being recognized as central to every major issue of modern life, with superb appointments being made to science leadership positions in government.

Great opportunities come with this increased national commitment, but so do great expectations and responsibilities. Others have recently written on this page about some of them. There is no question that we will need many more people to expand their roles as “scientist citizens” and participate in the policy-making process, contributing in ways in which they have not been asked to do for many years. There also are increased responsibilities associated with the recent boost to science from the U.S. economic stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).


ARRA commits $21.5 billion in additional funding for science and technology programs over the next 2 years, administered through virtually all of the federal science agencies. This funding largesse comes with increased requirements and responsibilities for the scientific community. Because this money must be spent on an unusually short timetable, a substantial portion from the science agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation (NSF), will be spent on proposals that have already been approved. However, many additional programs are also being developed, with requests for proposals being released every week. These requests will trigger new research and infrastructure development proposals that will have to be evaluated rapidly. The agencies can only do this with enormous help from the scientific community as reviewers and advisory panel members. Scientists have an obligation to step up and participate in these additional review processes, giving this service an even higher priority than in the past. If they don't, of course, the possible outcomes could be grim: Mediocre or irrelevant projects could inadvertently be funded, or even worse, the entire funding system could stall, and that could threaten future support for science. Thus, the success of the U.S. science funding system depends on full participation in the process by the entire science community.

In addition, President Obama has declared that his administration and its programs will be characterized by increased openness, transparency, and accountability. In this spirit, scientists will have to do a much better job of sharing both the results and the implications of their work with members of the broader public, particularly with policy-makers, to make clear what they do, why they do it, and how it will benefit society.

A recent Important Notice from NSF states that new reporting responsibilities will accompany any ARRA funds. This could be hard to implement because many outcomes are difficult to quantify, and the metrics that can be used differ among the categories of research: basic, translational, and applied. But, as a 1999 report from the U.S. National Academies pointed out, the quality and outcomes of research can be responsibly evaluated.* Although there seems to be a dearth of agreed-upon formal measures of outcome for scientific activities, NSF has a relatively new program called the Science of Science and Innovation Policy that is intended to develop metrics for some of the outcomes, impacts, and implications of science. It may take a while to see the products of this new line of research, but they should be helpful in the longer term in this new climate of accountability and transparency for science.

The confidence expressed by both the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress, and the tremendous infusion of public funds, are great boons to the scientific enterprise and its ability to serve society. The accompanying demand for increased levels of participation, accountability, and transparency from scientists seems an appropriate price to pay.

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