Status Report

AIP FYI #121 Hearing Examines NSF’s Prioritization & Management of Large Facilities

By SpaceRef Editor
October 3, 2001
Filed under ,

“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

The American Institute of Physics

[email protected]

(301) 209-3094


SpaceRef staff editor.