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Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Examines the Planning and Management of NSF Research Facilities

Aline D. McNaull
Number 69 - May 22, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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On April 18, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held the second in a series of hearings focused on major multi-user research facilities management.  While the previous hearing focused on the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account funding, the subject of this second hearing was the research and related activities funding which supports “the operation and maintenance of existing facilities, Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs), and planning and development activities.”   

This research infrastructure has a significant impact on large segments of the science and engineering population. We in Congress need to ensure the planning, operations, management and overall stewardship of these projects is being carried out responsibly and in the best interest of the American taxpayer,” stated Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL).

Brooks and Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) each expressed their interest in learning the way these facilities are managed while examining the issue of recompetition of their management contracts. 

In his opening statement, Lipinski asked questions to the witnesses about the process for decommissioning user facilities as well as the recompetition process for facilities which have significant international partnerships or which sit on land owned by the respective universities that manage them.”

The hearing charter prepared by the committee’s staff explains:

“Major multi-user facilities work through contracts or cooperative agreements between NSF and principal investigators (PI) responsible for the facility…. The majority of the NSF funded multi-user facilities have transitioned to five-year cooperative agreements. Every five years, the NSF program officer responsible for the facility makes a recommendation to the National Science Board (NSB) as to the renewal, recompetition, or termination of support for the facility.”

In 2008 the NSB drafted a resolution outlining its support for the regular recompetition of multi-user research facilities stating “that all expiring awards are to be recompeted, because rarely will it be in the best interest of U.S. science and engineering research and education not to do so. Furthermore, the Board endorsed a recompetition policy for major facility awards which is transparent to the research community such that after construction of major facilities is completed, followed by an appropriate time period to bring the facility to sustainable operations, full and open competition of the operations award will be required.”

Five witnesses testified.  Ethan Schreier, President of Associated Universities, Incorporated (AUI), the non-profit corporation that operates the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), addressed issues of international collaboration at the new international Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) as well as recompetition at that facility: 

“The Cooperative Agreements for both NRAO and ALMA Operations expire in 2015. NSB issued a resolution that, ‘urges the use of a recompetition plan that ensures that the recompetition of the management and operation of ALMA is separated from the recompetition of the management and operation of NRAO.’ NRAO and AUI believe that separating ALMA and NRAO management would have a seriously negative impact on science in the U.S. The scientific, engineering, and administrative staffs supporting these instruments are highly integrated, which produces cost efficiencies and helps ensure that US researchers reap the scientific benefits of the US investment in ALMA. Splitting them apart would result in an enormous loss of efficiency and expertise that would cause the US research community and all Observatory components to suffer and increase the costs of operations to the US taxpayer. AUI and NRAO have urged NSF to keep NRAO and ALMA operations under a single Cooperative Agreement.”

William Smith, Jr. President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) spoke about the role of AURA as a consortium of universities that manages the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the National Solar Observatory (NSO), the Gemini Observatory, and the Larch Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project.  Regarding the decision process to recompete, Smith suggested that “the goal of building effective national organizations should be the highest level objective by the NSF. Other administrative goals such as recompetition, are a means, but not the only means, to achieving this central goal. A wide range of factors should be considered in making a decision to recompete.”

Smith also addressed the costs of decommissioning facilities, stating that “decommissioning is an essential element of the evolution of scientific facilities but costs should be included in an NSF-wide budget such as MREFC.”  Smith recognized that “international collaborations and other forms of partnership in many cases call for governance structures that could be complex,” but he emphasized that “it is crucial that the US community perceive that scientific return and management control are commensurate with the US investment.”

David Divins, Program Director of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program – US Implementing Organization (IODP-USIO), focused on the impacts of fuel prices as well as the topic of contracts in his testimony.  He addressed the impact of increasing fuel prices on the Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling (JOIDES) Resolution (JR) facility, stating that they had been devastating, reducing our ability to operate the facility at an optimal level. At the time the JR was returning to operations, within NSF there appeared to be a shift in the way facilities were funded and all operations and maintenance costs for new facilities (like the JR) were to be accounted for within existing divisional budgets. The result on the facility was a decrease in operations from 12 months to 8 months per year. The reality is that for a 20% increase in funding we could deliver 40% more fundamental and groundbreaking science and be operating our facility at an optimal level.”

Gregory Boebinger, Director of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab), and Sol Gruner, Director and Principal Investigator of the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS)/Cornell Electron Storage Ring (CESR) each testified on the management and involvement of non-profits and other organizations at their facilities as well as on the subject of recompetition.  

Boebinger explained the three stages of competitive review and funding of the MagLab stating that the NSF decides funding for the MagLab for the coming year through their annual review process, adding that the MagLab Renewal Proposal process includes “a rigorous NSF review as well as the articulation of a new scientific vision and zero-baseline budget for the laboratory,” and noted that a full ‘winner-take-all’ recompetition is expected “sometime in the near future.”

Regarding decisions to launch a full recompetition, Boebinger stated that the criteria for commencing a full recompetition should include an assessment of the performance of the present facility, the “impact of recompetition on future scientific and business management performance, and suitability of existing infrastructure,” as well as the “impact of recompetition on non-federal funding partnerships who have invested significantly in the current national facility.”  He suggested that “the National Science Board’s recompetition policy should factor in these and other relevant issues and should give the NSF flexibility in its implementation of the policy.”

Gruner’s testimony highlighted the world class science, new technology developments and student training that takes place at CHESS.  Gruner said that “CHESS is able to serve only about one-third of the demand for time on its beamlines….  CHESS data results in about one publication for each day of user operations.”

Questions from Members included Brooks’ inquiry as to whether facilities faced vulnerabilities due to regular recompetition.  Gruner stated that if facilities are recompeted then the staff would be replaced.  Divins discussed the pros and cons to the recompetition process citing that while the cost of contracts can be prohibitively expensive the recompetition process also can provide funding for new staff hiring and equipment improvements.  Smith questioned whether the recompetition process is really serving the community in the best possible way and pointed out the uncertainty that comes every five years as a result of this process.  Schreier explained that there are many international agreements subject to international labor laws and that relations with foreign partners need to be considered since the recompetition of a facility can sometimes result in staff changes that affect the relationship between that facility and foreign partners. 

Lipinski asked Smith whether there are alternatives to recompetition and also questioned how decommissioning costs should be addressed in the MREFC budget.  Smith discussed how merging separate organizations impedes recompetition.  Schreier stated that separating two facilities, ALMA and NRAO, would result in a large increase in cost.   Smith advocated for an Agency-wide pool of money to address the cost of decommissioning a facility while Boebinger and Divins stated that decommissioning funds at their facilities are considered as facilities transition and upgrade to new equipment. 

Paul Tonko (D-NY) requested more information about what other actions the NSF could take in order to strengthen the outcome of the recompetition process.  Gruner assured him that there is “no one size fits all” and that “some flexibility and common sense has to be applied” to this process. 

Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) asked about science technology engineering and math (STEM) education programs at the various facilities.  Smith described the Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) program at his facility and discussed how the research experiences for students help improve diversity in STEM fields.  Boebinger stated that the MagLab has a center that brings together K-12 students with undergraduates and that there is a successful annual open house each year.  He went into detail about a program offering research experiences for teachers as well as the MagLab REU program.  Schreier stated that his facilities also have REU programs and highlighted the outreach program at the telescope in West Virginia.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics