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FYI Number 125: October 2, 2001

Hearing Examines NSF's Prioritization & Management of Large Facilities

"NSF's current review, management, and oversight processes are designed to 'build right those facilities that are the right ones to build.'" - written testimony of NSF Director Rita Colwell

The National Science Foundation is unique among federal S&T agencies in that its mandate is to promote science and engineering across all fields and disciplines. In addition to awards to individual scientists, NSF grant money supports major infrastructure facilities, including accelerators, telescopes, earthquake simulators, supercomputers, research vessels, and the South Pole research station. As its support for interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and international projects has grown, NSF has found itself increasingly funding the construction and operation of large and complex research facilities, sometimes distributed over several locations. Currently, the foundation spends over $1 billion annually on such projects. NSF does not perform the construction itself, but generally makes awards to universities, non-profit organizations or consortia to build and operate such facilities. Each project is overseen by an NSF Program Officer, and the foundation retains the ultimate oversight responsibility for each project.

Last month, the House Science Subcommittee on Research investigated NSF's procedures for prioritizing major research facilities, and its ability to manage and oversee such projects. Subcommittee Chairman and Ranking Member Nick Smith (R-MI) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), as well as NSF Director Rita Colwell and National Science Board Vice Chairman Anita Jones, all agreed that NSF's past track record of handling such projects has been superb. However, recent cost and schedule overruns on projects such as the Gemini Telescope Project and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, as well as what Colwell termed the "more challenging technical and management issues" of increasingly-complex projects, have caused many to call for a reexamination of NSF's management and oversight. President Bush's budget blueprint noted that "NSF's capability to manage proposed projects needs to be enhanced." In response, working with its Inspector General's office, NSF has developed a "Large Facility Project Management and Oversight Plan" to clarify and strengthen its procedures.

Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) pointed out that NSF's Program Officers responsible for such facilities are usually scientists or engineers - sometimes only serving temporarily at NSF - and often do not have construction management experience. One provision in NSF's new plan would create the position of Large Facility Projects Deputy, to be filled by someone with experience in the construction and management of large research facilities, who would serve as a centralized resource for all Program Officers with large project responsibilities. "The plan clearly represents progress," said NSF Inspector General Christine Boesz. She added that "some key areas of implementation still need to be addressed," but assured the subcommittee that her office would continue working with NSF on it. The foundation presented its plan to the National Science Board in August, and intended to submit it to OMB in September. Rep. Johnson called the plan "prudent and timely."

Chairman Smith voiced concerns over how large facility projects are prioritized, and worried that the ultimate decisions were "based on the influence of individual Members of Congress" who might have projects in their districts. He questioned whether projects were assigned a priority order. Colwell explained that potential projects are evaluated based on a list of criteria including intellectual merit, importance to science and engineering, balance across fields, and readiness to implement. As NSF Director, she brings a large group of qualified projects before the National Science Board, and the Board identifies a small number as priorities to be funded, but neither Colwell nor the Board specified a rank order. "I can't say an astronomy project is number one over a biology project," Colwell said. Once the Board has given its approval to a small group of projects, Colwell holds discussions with OMB to determine which ones end up in the NSF budget. The remaining approved projects continue to be a priority for future budgets.

Jones added that all the projects approved by the Board were of highest priority, and "it is the expectation of the Board...that those will be commenced very soon," budget permitting. Historically, she noted, approved projects have eventually been funded. "I'm not sure what problem we're trying to solve," remarked Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-MI). "In the real world operation of the agency," she asked, "what negative consequences" have been caused by not giving projects a rank order? "Historically, NSF has not had a problem" with its major research equipment priorities, Colwell answered.

Rep. Felix Grucci (R-NY) complained that the Rare Symmetry Violating Processes (RSVP) project, to be built in his district at Brookhaven National Laboratory, "seems to be on hold or stalled," although it had received Board approval. Colwell explained that it was farther back in the pipeline than some other projects. She said that NSF is currently funding, within its Major Research Equipment account, the Large Hadron Collider, Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) R&D, the High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research, the George E. Brown Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, Polar Support Aircraft upgrades, the South Pole Station Modernization, and Terascale Computing Systems. Projects that have been included in prior budget requests and remain priorities are: ALMA Phase II, EarthScope I, and the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). The following projects have also been approved by the National Science Board and will be priorities in future budget requests: the Ice Cube Neutrino Detector, RSVP, EarthScope II, and Ocean Observatories.

"We don't expect perfection [but] we expect accountability" in the construction of large facilities, Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN) stated. He asked that NSF keep Congress informed of its priorities and difficulties as they arise, and we'll do our best to work with you, and defend you when you need it."

In closing the September 6 hearing, Smith commented that "NSF is the best research organization in the world." But he reminded Colwell of her responsibility to be accountable with taxpayer money, warning that "I anticipate tighter budgets as we experience less revenues coming into the federal government than we've seen in the past." Colwell responded, "We intend to be as open as we can, and have in place management...that will allow us to move into the best way of - being optimistic - doubling the NSF budget, for the nation."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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