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NSF Major Research Equipment and Facilities Management Discussed in House Science Committee Hearing

Aline D. McNaull
Number 42 - March 19, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“The world-class equipment and facilities that NSF supports are essential to the task of discovery, and are vital to NSF accomplishing its mission of supporting fundamental U.S. science and engineering research.” -- Cora Marrett, Deputy Director of NSF

Ensuring fiscal responsibility and accountability in the management and operation of National Science Foundation (NSF) Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) was the subject of a recent hearing in the House Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. 

Witnesses included Marrett, who gave an overview of the NSF’s large facility process; Jose-Marie Griffiths, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Facilities of the National Science Board (NSB)and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Bryant University who described the role of the NSB; James Yeck, Project Director of IceCube which is an MREFC project associated with the University of Wisconsin – Madison; Tony Beasley, Chief Operating Officer and Project Manager of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), Inc. MREFC Project; and Tim Cowles, Vice President and Director of Ocean Observing at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership MREFC Project.   

The NSF MREFC account was established to support the acquisition, construction and commissioning of large-scale facility projects. “NSF requires that each MREFC candidate project represent an outstanding opportunity to enable breakthrough research and innovation, as well as education and broader impacts,” described Marrett.  She specified how these facilities span experimental disciplines, noting that “in addition to enabling immense scientific return, multi-user facilities serve as platforms to train the next generation of scientists and engineers, and provide the high technology equipment and services necessary for economic growth and innovation.” 

The FY 2013 budget request for MREFC is $196.2 million which is down $0.89 million or 0.4 percent from FY 2012.  The NSF request in FY2013 will continue funding for four projects: Advanced LIGO (AdvLIGO), Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST), Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), and the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).  No additional funding is required in FY 2013 for Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).  The FYI on the NSF budget request can be read here.

Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) opened the hearing by expressing his desire to ensure that “appropriate oversight be executed to guarantee the greatest return on taxpayer investments” while also lending his support to NSF by inquiring what the Subcommittee can do to “pave a more responsible path for America’s future by way of supporting these important endeavors.” 

Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) showed his support for the MREFC projects and inquired about what oversight issues remain following changes in the MREFC process.  He was pleased with the restoration of funding to MREFC projects in the FY2013 budget request after several years of cuts.  He cited in his written statement a 2003 report by the National Science Board in which the Board recommended that the research infrastructure budget comprise 22-27 percent of the NSF budget.

Marrett described the process for the planning and construction of these large multi-user facilities in her written testimony and included the following insight learned by NSF on the recent modifications to the large facilities process: “Experience at NSF and across the federal science facility enterprise confirms that adequate investment in preconstruction planning is essential to achieving a project’s intended scope within its estimated budget.” 

Marret also noted that “large facility projects often expend two-thirds, or more, of their total budget as subawards and subcontracts to other parties.  Consequently, it is extremely important that during planning the project team develop effective plans for subawardee and subcontract monitoring and oversight, including quality assurance and safety.”

Griffiths provided an overview of the role of the National Science Board in the facilities management process.  Griffiths stated that the Board conducts an annual portfolio of facilities projects “where the objectives of this review are to examine the interrelationships between the proposed facility development and other activities across the Foundation to help guide the appropriate balance of investment in infrastructure and research.  The review also examines the budgetary consequences, operations costs and future liabilities of further development, and guides NSF in managing risk and being able to respond to opportunities.”  

Yeck offered information regarding the IceCube Neutrino Observatory MREFC project which was completed on time and under budget.  In his statement, he did relay that the primary strengths of the project were “the quality of the external review; the close and effective coordination between NSF’s Office of Polar Programs and the Division of Physics; strong institutional commitment and engagement by the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and the international scientific interest and support of the NSF approval process.” 

As to the weaknesses of the process, Yeck stated that the researchers faced “the general environment of uncertainty, the potential for discontinuities in financial support, and the fact that both NSF and UW-Madison were still maturing in terms of their large project processes and general capabilities.”

Beasley offered the following suggestion for improvements to the MREFC process:

“The scale of scientific research (and therefore the facilities to address the burning issues) has grown rapidly over the past two decades, and it is increasingly apparent that large international facilities may be the only way to address the important scientific issues of tomorrow.  Successfully merging national facility development processes like the MREFC framework with those used by foreign partners to produce effective international collaborations has been, and will continue to be, a challenge.  The Large Facilities Office has recently spearheaded an effort to improve community understanding of those challenges and gather input on how to address them; over time, I expect that the MREFC process will be expanded and refined to include clear interfaces to international analogs.”

The discussion and question period focused largely on the decision-making process regarding how projects are deemed ready for construction and development.  Both the Chairman and Ranking Member inquired about procedures that occur in the cases when projects need to be terminated. 

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) inquired as to how MREFC facilities are maintained and managed post their construction.  Marrett offered assurance that those making decisions in the early stages of MREFC projects do consider the long-term operation of the facilities but that funding for the long-term operation of MREFC facilities comes from different NSF accounts. 

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics