Following a year of investigations into alleged financial mismanagement of one of the National Science Foundation’s large-scale research facilities, the House Science Committee cleared legislation aimed at improving facility management, accountability, and transparency at the foundation.
On Wednesday, the House Science Committee approved by voice vote legislation that aims to strengthen accountability and transparency in the management and oversight of major multi-user research facilities funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In his opening statement, chairman of the committee’s oversight subcommittee and lead sponsor of the bill, Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), explained the purpose of his legislation is to restore confidence in federally funded research projects so “taxpayers can trust us with their money knowing that it will be spent in the manner intended.”
Loudermilk authored the “NSF Major Research Facility Reform Act of 2016” following last year’s string of allegations and investigations into alleged financial mismanagement and improper use of taxpayer funds at one of NSF’s major facilities under construction for the last decade, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). A co-sponsor of the bill, Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) chided NEON for being $80 million over budget, 18 months behind schedule, and for spending “thousands of taxpayer dollars…on expenses such as a Christmas party, premium coffee service, professional lobbying, as well as liquor for office happy hours and trips to a high-end resort in France.”
While the committee minority also supported the bill, it did so with considerable hesitation and a few qualifications. Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) joined Smith and Loudermilk in calling for sound management of major NSF facilities, but she offered a more positive spin, choosing to call out examples of highly successful projects instead of those facing allegations of mismanagement:
We recently held a hearing to congratulate the scientists working on one such endeavor: the LIGO project that detected gravity waves. As the LIGO project demonstrated, these efforts involved major facilities that have the potential to generate profound breakthroughs in science. However, these major facilities also cost a lot of money. Properly managing those large expenses is critical to ensuring the success of the major facilities projects, and ultimately, critical to the advancement of science.
Bill would ban use of taxpayer funds for alcohol, lobbying, other out-of-scope expenses
Loudermilk and Smith cited various recent reviews, investigations, and committee hearings – including multiple reports from the NSF Inspector General, outside auditors, and the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) – as building blocks for the legislation.
Most recently, the committee held a hearing in February to review a December 2015 NAPA study on NSF’s management of large-scale research facilities. At that hearing, the study committee’s project director Cynthia Heckman testified in support of its 13 recommendations for improving NSF management and oversight of cooperative agreements. The NAPA study concluded that cooperative agreements are NSF’s “appropriate mechanism” to manage large-scale research facilities, but it also advised NSF that such an approach requires strong agency oversight, project management discipline, and rigorous review processes.
Drawing on the NAPA report, Loudermilk’s “NSF Major Research Facility Reform Act” aims to strengthen NSF’s arm in the management of its large-scale research facilities and place new accountability and transparency measures in five areas:
- A permanent, oversight-focused NSF Large Facilities Office, reporting to the NSF Director and providing management support to all NSF research facilities;
- Mandatory cost audits of projects, both before construction and every two years during construction;
- Reform of the awarding of contingency funds used to address project cost overruns;
- Reform of management fees, which NSF pays contractors to compensate them for managing their facilities and to cover certain costs that cannot be reimbursed by the government; and
- Education training for NSF managers and staff on whistleblower law.
The section on management fees would specifically prohibit NSF awardees from using management fees for alcohol; lobbying; tickets to concerts, sports, or other entertainment events; non-business travel, including vacation; charitable contributions not directly benefiting the mission of the project; non-business meals or entertainment; and luxury or personal items.
Some of the bill’s provisions, such as the cost audit requirements and new rules on contingency funds, would apply only to NSF research facilities which have a total project cost of $100 million or greater and are funded by the agency’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account. The Daniel K. Inouye Space Telescope and Large Synoptic Survey Telescope both meet this standard, and new MREFC construction projects initiated by NSF will also likely fall under the purview of all sections of the bill.
Other provisions of the bill, such as the restrictions on how management fees can be spent, would likely apply to all NSF research facilities, including those operated by the agency’s research directorates, such as the National Solar Observatory, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, National Optical Astronomy Observatory, and Arecibo Observatory in the foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences.
Democratic members open to management reform but call for continued work on bill
During Wednesday’s markup, the committee approved by voice vote a manager’s amendment offered by Loudermilk that made a number of last minute bill revisions intended to address some NSF and minority concerns about the legislation.
In her opening statement, Ranking Member Johnson acknowledged the majority’s consideration of feedback from multiple stakeholders, including NSF, but said Loudermilk’s bill is still “a work in progress.” Johnson noted the ample stakeholder feedback the committee has received over the past week and made a plea for slowing down consideration of the bill, at least enough to take the feedback into account:
It is important that we continue to thoughtfully consider the view of these interested parties as we move forward, and quite possibly make additional modifications to the bill language as is needed. At the end of the day, those interested parties are the ones that will actually build the telescopes and conduct the groundbreaking science, and as such, their views carry great weight with me. Moreover, it is very important that we don’t unintentionally increase the risk to the taxpayer for these large projects.
Ph.D. physicist and Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) sounded a similar note, calling on the committee to look to other federal science agencies, such as the Energy Department, as models for facilities management:
The [Act] seems at best to me to be an overly prescriptive bill, especially given how relatively few major projects the NSF constructs and their efforts so far to the implement the lessons learned from recent projects. There’s actually no shortage in the government overall of experience on how to manage scientific projects of this scope. … Instead of rushing forward with what is quite possibly unnecessary legislation, I would have hoped that NSF and this committee could instead look to other federal agencies where there has been successful experience in managing projects similar to NEON and in building and overseeing large scientific projects, … for example the Department of Energy.
House leadership has not yet scheduled floor time for the legislation, but it is eager to move more bills like this one that have garnered bipartisan support in committee.