My Experiences With A Lack Of Proper Diligence And Bias In The NSF Review Process For Climate Proposals

Recently, I requested information from NSF under the Freedom of Information Act regarding how my recent proposals on the effect of landscape processes on climate were handled. The reason for this request is given below.  My experiences, however, may be of more general interest particularly in light of Judy Curry’s post of May 25, 2011

Freedom of Information

and the ABC news investigative report

Shrimp on a Treadmill Among Research Items Skewered in New Report – Sen. Tom Coburn criticizes National Science Foundation’ use of tax dollars.

 I also have recommendations for the NSF to improve the process. As a preface, my research program has benefited by decades of NSF support. It is only in the last few years, unfortunately, as the climate issue has become so politicized that serious issues have developed in the objectivity of NSF with respect to funding climate studies. Those who manage funding of climate research at the NSF, unfortunately, seem to have become politicized just as much as most other areas of climate science.

This is a long post, so I have summarized the major experiences and findings here:

  • NSF does not retain a record of e-mail communications
  • NSF is cavalier in terms of the length of time proposals are under review.
  • NSF has decided to emphasize climate modeling and of funding multi-decadal climate predictions, at the expense of research which can be tested against real-world observations.
  • NSF penalizes scientists who criticize their performance.

My recommendations include:

  • Guarantee that the review process be completed within 6 months [my most recent land use and climate proposal was not even sent out for review until 10 months after its receipt!)
  • Retain all e-mail communications indefinitely (NSF staff can routinely delete e-mails, such that there is no record to check their accountability)
  • Require external independent assessments, by a subset of scientists who are outside of the NSF, of the reviews and manager decisions, including names of referees. This review should be on all accepted and rejected proposals ( as documented in the NSF letter at the end of this post, since they were so late sending out for review, they simply relied on referees of an earlier (rejected) proposal; this is laziness at best).

My concerns regarding the review process are similar to those reported in

McKitrick, Ross R. (2011) “Bias in the Peer Review Process: A Cautionary and Personal Account” in Climate Coup, Patrick J. Michaels ed., Cato Inst. Washington DC

and Toby Carlson as reported in the posts

Guest Post “Crisis in Academic Funding” By Toby N. Carlson

Perceptive Article On The Sad State Of Research Funding By Toby N. Carlson

where, with respect to funding agencies (of which NSF is a major one), Toby wrote

“They are bureaucracies that promote top-down science to suit political and administrative ends.”

In my post

Comments On Numerical Modeling As The New Climate Science Paradigm

Dick Lindzen is quoted

“In brief, we have the new paradigm where simulation and programs have replaced theory and observation, where government largely determines the nature of scientific activity, and where the primary role of professional societies is the lobbying of the government for special advantage.”

I have posted on the inadequacies in the NSF review process of climate proposals in

NSF Decision On Our Request For Reconsideration Of A Rejected NSF Proposal On The Role Of Land Use Change In The Climate System

Is The NSF Funding Process Working Correctly?

As I wrote in the second post above (on June 11 2011)

“I …. have a proposal still under consideration that was submitted on May 13 2009 (an NSF-accomplishment based proposal) but only sent out for review in late March 2010! “

That particular proposal, in the NSF pipeline for over 10 months before even being sent out for review was ultimately rejected.

Since that time, I was informed in a confidential communication that NSF conducted an internal review of whether I was being treated “fairly”. Their conclusion, in this star chamber type of review, was that I was treated fairly [no surprise there]. However, I was also informed via a second very credible confidential source that I would never again be funded by the NSF due to my weblog. I have no way to know if this action would actually occur [since I do have one non-climate project funded by the NSF], the message that was transferred to me is very chilling. It is that unless you follow the NSF management position on climate, you will not be funded in this area (or in the future, perhaps not at all).

Upon being told this confidential information,  I requested copies of e-mails and other information relevant to the internal review through the Freedom of Information Act. I have reproduced several of these e-mails below.

Date: Mon, 21 Feb 2011 11:31:17 -0700 (MST)

Jensen, Leslie Subject: RE: NSF FOIA Request 2-17-11.pdf – Adobe Acrobat Professional

Dear Ms. Jensen

We have completed the documentation of my FOI request, but have not heard back from you. Please confirm its receipt and what the next step is. I would like to move forward to NSF revealing what was involved with the internal review.

Sincerely

Roger A. Pielke, Sr.,

On Mon, 21 Feb 2011, Jensen, Leslie A. wrote:

Dear Sir: we have received your Privacy Act identity form and we have 20  working days to respond to your request.

Sincerely,

Leslie A. Jensen
FOIA/Privacy Act Officer
FOIA Public Liaison
Office of the General Counsel
National Science Foundation

Followed by

On Tue, 22 Feb 2011, Jensen, Leslie A. wrote:

Dr. Pielke:

Please provide me with the grant number associated with the records that
you wish to receive?  Thank you.

Leslie Jensen

I replied

Date: Tue, 22 Feb 2011 06:12:51 -0700 (MST)
Subject: RE: NSF FOIA Request 2-17-11.pdf – Adobe Acrobat Professional
Dear Ms. Jensen

We have no grant numbers as the projects were not funded.

The issue is that I have been critical of their handling of the review process on several of my proposals in the last few years, and also on the focus of NSF funding on climate. According to a confidential source, in response the critiques I completed on my weblog, they performed an internal review to assess whether I was treated fairly or not. From my source, they concluded I was treated “fairly”.  I have also recently been informed from a confidential source that they object to my weblog comments and this is why I have not been funded.

My FOI request is for information including e-mails, and any other communications, on this internal review. My e-mails to Jay Fein and Tim Killen on this matter have been unanswered.

My weblog posts on the NSF review process (both on my proposals and their process) include

http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/is-the-nsf-funding-process-working-correctly/

http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/nsf-decision-on-our-request-for-reconsideration-of-a-rejected-nsf-proposal/

http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/the-national-science-foundation-funds-multi-decadal-climate-predictions-without-an-ability-to-verify-their-skill/

http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/diminishing-returns-from-multi-decadal-global-climate-model-simulations/

I would be glad to share with you my e-mails to Jay Fein and Tim Killen if you feel this would be needed.

Sincerely

Roger A. Pielke, Sr.,

Ms. Jensen replied

On Tue, 22 Feb 2011, Jensen, Leslie A. wrote:

Dr. Pielke:

If your proposals received review – they were given a number – even if they were declined – that is the NSF process.  I need those numbers to do a proper search for records.

Thank You.

I replied

Subject: RE: NSF FOIA Request 2-17-11.pdf – Adobe Acrobat Professional
Dear Ms. Jensen
Here are the rejected proposals

EAR 943628 “Collaborative Research: Sensitivity of weather and climate in the Eastern United States to historical land-cover changes since European settlement

AGS 940582 “The Role of Landscape Change in Central and Southern Florida on Weather and Climate”

AGS 840826 “Sensitivity of Weather and Climate in the Eastern United States to Historical Land-Cover Changes Since European Settlement.

Please let me know if you need anything further.
Sincerely

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Roger A. Pielke Sr.

I then received a packet of e-mails from Leslie Jensen who is the FOIA Privacy Act Officer in the Office of the General Counsel of the National Science Foundation.   She sent me mostly copies of e-mails that I had sent and that were sent to me! Except for several e-mails where Tim Killen, who recused himself due to his association with the University of Colorado, there was only one with significant information that was not already in my e-mails. That e-mail is reproduced below, and I will comment on it after the image.

However, I followed up with Ms. Jensen requesting further information

Date: Fri, 15 Apr 2011 06:22:19 -0600 (MDT)
Subject: RE: NSF FOIA Request 2-1-11

Dear Ms. Jensen

I have rec’d the packet after being forwarded from the University. It is almost all a set of e-mails that I had sent and their replies to me plus reviews which I had also seen. Only a few others were provided.

There are e-mails to NSF that I had sent that were not included, however. That by itself is a concern, since it implies a rather cursory approach to following the FOIA request was made.

She replied

Date: Fri, 15 Apr 2011 08:35:43 -0400
From: “Jensen, Leslie A.” <xxxxxx>
Subject: RE: NSF FOIA Request 2-1-11

Dear Sir:

If you can provide me with additional direction I would be happy to do another search.  If there were emails from you in the privacy act protected grant file I would not necessarily re-send to you – for efficiency purposes only – no hidden agenda on my part.  If you wish – I will have the entire grant file printed and sent to you.

I followed up with the e-mail below

Dear Ms. Jensen

Thank you for your quick reply.

I am also interested in e-mails within NSF from Thomas Torgersen, Walter Robinson and Jay Fein regarding interactions with me over the past 5 years. For example, there was a meeting with Ben Herman, Tom Chase, and I with Jay Fein, Walter Robinson and others several years ago at the NSF which must have had internal e-mail communications regarding our visit arranged through Jay Fein.

Ben Herman, Tom Chase and I met at the NSF because we felt (and still feel) our proposals have been handled inappropriately.

My weblog post

Is The NSF Funding Process Working Correctly?
http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/is-the-nsf-funding-process-working-correctly/

documents a subset of my concerns regarding the NSF process including interactions with Thomas Torgersen.

My concern was heightened in the last few months as I have been informed of issues through two sources [who want to remain confidential}.

One source informed me that I was internally reviewed to determine if I was being handled fairly (they concluded I was). Another source stated that I would no longer be funded at the NSF because of my weblog (presumably my criticisms of the NSF review process).

I cannot confirm the accuracy of these claims (and I was told through second persons each time). Nonetheless, if there is an opportunity through the FOIA process to determine if this information is correct or not, I would like to find out, as the sources are credible individuals.

Thank you for your time is looking into this issue.

She replied

On Fri, 15 Apr 2011, Jensen, Leslie A. wrote:
Dear Sir:

A proper search has been accomplished for all named individuals.  Email is  not a permanent record and meetings from several years ago would be deleted.  The Foundation’s email retention policy is repeated below:

———————————-

Exchange Server: Most users have their mail delivered to their Exchange  Server mailbox. If you haven’t done anything special, that is where your  mail is delivered and stored. In Outlook your mailbox is the folder that  includes your name in the folder name (top folder in your Folder List). The  Exchange Servers are backed up to tape nightly, and the tapes are retained  for 14 days, then destroyed. Exchange Server has a feature that allows you  to recover deleted messages (even after the trash is emptied). That feature  is set to retain deleted messages for 5 days. When these features are combined, it means that 19 days after you delete a message and empty the  trash, nobody can recover it.

———————————

With regard to your concern over improper handling of proposals NSF has a  reconsideration policy:  http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/policydocs/pappguide/nsf11001/gpg_4.jsp#IVD. In  addition, I am providing the link to NSF’s Office of the Inspector General
(OIG): http://www.nsf.gov/oig/hotline.jsp.  The FOIA is only a records process.  Your claims of improper procedures/policies would be handled  outside of my office

My responding e-mail to her reads

Date: Fri, 15 Apr 2011 15:30:23 -0600 (MDT)
Subject: RE: NSF FOIA Request 2-1-11

Dear Ms. Jensen

This is quite surprising and disappointing. The deletion of such information appears to conflict with the intent of the FOIA, as I had understood it.

I have requested reconsideration of a proposal, as reported in the weblog post I sent you. The absence of e-mail documentation of how my appeal was handled was notably absent in the information that you sent to me in my FOIA request.

It appears that the FOIA as applied by NSF is essentially worthless.

The letter below, which was the one item that provided new information that the program manager has “drawn pretty heavily on reviewers of the two previous proposals” [which were rejected by the NSF] certainly suggests a lack of diligence and objectivity in completing the review process.

Thus, my experience with the climate related section of the NSF is that they have decided to control not only the quality of the science (which is an appropriate activity, of course), but also to limit what perspectives scientists have on climate (which is inappropriate).

My recommendations to help remedy the lack of diligence and  biases at the NSF in climate science and include:

  • Guarantee that the review process be completed within 6 months.
  • Retain all e-mail communications indefinitely
  • Require external independent assessments of the review process including names of referees by a subset of scientists who are outside of the NSF. This review should be on all accepted and rejected proposals.

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