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MACOS Tests the Board's Oversight
Before Board members had a chance to enjoy the balmier climate, however, the MACOS controversy took them by storm. In March 1975, during what was to be a routine hearing before a subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, Congressmen John B. Conlan (R-AZ) and Robert E. Bauman (R-MD) complained that some parents were protesting about a fifth- and sixth-grade anthropology course, developed with NSF funds, that conveyed what they saw as disturbing and un-American values. Foundation leaders at the hearing were caught off guard.
In Man, A Course of Study (MACOS), Harvard professor and education theorist Jerome Bruner and colleagues wanted to show different values in other cultures. Most of the material was inoffensive, but a few segments, including one that mentioned wife-sharing among Arctic tribes, proved shocking to some. NSF had supported the development of MACOS, along with dozens of other curriculum materials meant to boost learning in science and mathematics; the course was then being taught in thousands of schools.
The standard practice for proposals submitted to NSF was to subject them to peer review. Thousands of qualified researchers, painstakingly chosen by NSF, reviewed applications in a process that was designed to protect reviewers' identities and encourage candor. But after the House Committee hearing, NSF leaders discovered that negative comments by some reviewers of MACOS had been obscured by NSF staffers, who neglected to include the criticisms in the review summaries they sent forward.
In the aftermath, Board Chair Norman C. Hackerman warned his fellow members that "[T]hese recent events highlight the need for the Programs Committee to exercise its oversight role to a greater degree with respect to ongoing programs." At first blush, Congress appeared unwilling to wait, threatening to require that all 15,000 grant applications be screened on Capitol Hill prior to peer review at NSF. That idea died, but the Board conducted its own examination of the peer review system. Board members concluded that the system generally worked very well (a finding with which the National Academy of Sciences, in its own study, agreed). However, the Board ultimately voted to end the staff practice of crafting review summaries, recognizing their potential to mislead. Reviewers' comments would henceforth be forwarded to applicants verbatim.
Congress now gave the Board an explicit role overseeing peer review at NSF. Historian George Mazuzan writes that from the MACOS episode forward, the Foundation would be under "new pressure for accountability."