NSF Reviewing Use of Rotating Scientists, May Seek New Hiring Authorities

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At the August National Science Board meeting, the National Science Foundation presented an analysis of its extensive use of rotating scientific personnel and suggested that the foundation might seek new hiring authorities from Congress in order to reduce its reliance on rotators for executive-level positions.

At the National Science Board meeting held last week, the board received an update on the National Science Foundation’s recent efforts to assess its use of “rotators,” scientists who come to the agency for a set number of years to serve in a variety of program management roles. These rotators are also referred to as “IPAs,” named after the Intergovernmental Personnel Act of 1970, the legislation authorizing use of such term-limited employees.

In April, NSF Director France Córdova established a steering committee for policy and oversight of the IPA program. At the NSB meeting, the chair of the steering committee Joanne Tornow — also NSF’s chief human capital officer — presented statistics about the program as well as an analysis of the foundation’s use of IPAs relative to similar agencies. The presentation occurred during the latter half of the Committee on Audit and Oversight session. Video of the session is available here.

Tornow emphasized that IPAs have been integral to the foundation throughout its history. She explained that NSF views the IPA program as a vehicle for bringing in top talent and new perspectives as well as for increasing understanding between NSF and the research community. She also noted that the IPA program has been endorsed in external reviews, pointing to a 2004 report by the National Academy of Public Administration that concluded NSF should continue to use IPAs despite the “operational challenges” posed by such arrangements.

However, the IPA program has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, largely due to IPAs often being paid more and having more potential conflicts of interest than equivalent federal employees. A separate concern is that overreliance on IPAs, especially for executive positions, could lead to lower retention of institutional knowledge.

NSF matches each IPA’s home institution salary and provides additional benefits, such as relocation expenses, compensation for lost consulting income, and funds to continue their research activities. Although NSF requests that the home institutions share 15 percent of an IPA’s salary costs, the institutions are not required to provide this money.

Tornow noted that in fiscal year 2015, IPA agreements cost NSF $41.4 million—$5.4 million more than if the positions had been filled by federal employees. For the same fiscal year, IPAs serving as program directors on average cost similar to federal program directors, and IPAs serving as executives on average cost 50 percent more than federal executives. In 2015, 27 of NSF’s 176 IPAs were in executive positions, including six of the seven directorate heads.

Tornow announced that NSF has begun developing a strategic framework for the IPA program, noting that “To date, decisions about how and when to use IPAs have largely been managed at the local level instead of as part of an overall integrated, agency-wide workforce strategy.”

NSF stands apart in its use of IPAs

NSF recently benchmarked its use of IPAs relative to NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The exercise, results of which are excerpted in the table below, makes clear that NSF is unique among these agencies in its reliance on IPAs. Tornow presented these figures at the board meeting.

Use of IPAs at Selected Federal Science Agencies in FY15

# of IPAs 176 78 55 24 1
% of Scientific Workforce 28 < 1 < 1 < 1 < 1
Used in Executive Positions? Yes Generally no Generally no Generally no No


On the subject of executive IPAs, Tornow noted that NIH and NASA typically use agency-specific authorities to hire permanent executives at compensation rates higher than would otherwise be allowable under federal civil service rules. Córdova made clear that that she believes seeking analogous authorities from Congress would be justified:

One other thing that these executives can have is a longer period of time, which in my book is the most important thing for continuity for the agency. … No board has really taken it on themselves to say, wait a minute, we don't have the ability to really attract, or the toolbox to attract the very best talent compared to other places, and we need to start now. It is a long process because it is an authority that has to be approved by Congress, but we have a really defensible rationale for doing so.

The board also discussed how best to communicate the role of IPAs to the research community and the public. Córdova suggested that NSF could take an approach similar to that of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which uses term-limited program managers extensively:

[DARPA] laud[s] their rotating positions as a real asset to their programming and their success, and they do that right up front in their public outreach statements, in the statement of what DARPA is all about, and I thought that was a real model. One of the main goals [of the IPA workforce strategic plan being developed] is to get the narrative straight and have everybody at NSF on board with the importance of this. Then I think a next step is to put it front and center what the contributions [are] of having a mix of rotators and federal staff.

(As reported in FYI #83, both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act would make permanent the authority DARPA uses to hire its program managers.)

Recent scrutiny from the Inspector General and Congress

Over the past few years, the IPA program has been the subject of multiple reports by NSF’s Office of Inspector General (IG), which in turn have led Congress to consider restricting the program.

In a 2013 report, the IG recommended that NSF explore means of reducing costs associated with the program, such as expanding use of telework and encouraging the IPAs’ home institutions to share more of their salary costs. The IG also suggested that the program lacks a clearly articulated long-term vision, evaluation processes, and a designated champion within the agency.

In 2015, the IG released a report examining a conflict of interest case involving an IPA employee. Days later, the House Science Committee held a hearing entitled “Is NSF Properly Managing its Rotating Staff?” At the hearing, members from both parties largely agreed that NSF should take actions to address issues raised by this and previous IG reports. Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) signaled that Congress could take further steps. “If it becomes apparent that the NSF is not capable of handling this type of program, then maybe we should consider legislation that limits the use of rotators moving forward,” he said.

Concern over the IPA program’s cost has since been expressed within legislation. In particular, section 121 of the House-passed “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act” would require NSF to submit a written justification to Congress whenever it pays an IPA more than the maximum allowed for senior federal executives. It also would require NSF to submit an annual report to Congress describing efforts to decrease IPA costs and evaluating the benefits highly compensated IPAs provide the foundation. The Senate’s counterpart “American Innovation and Competitiveness Act” does not contain such provisions, but section 112 does direct NSF to update its conflict of interest policies for rotating staff.

Most recently, the IG issued a report in January 2016 focused on executive IPAs, which noted that the cost of such IPAs had increased since the 2013. The IG again recommended that NSF consider means of reducing IPA costs.

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