During what a participant described as “one of the more facilities-centric days on the science board in recent memory,” board members spent a lion’s share of the public sessions discussing ways to improve their understanding and oversight of the National Science Foundation’s portfolio of large-scale research facilities.
On Feb. 2 and 3, the National Science Board (NSB), the 25-member governing board of the National Science Foundation (NSF), held its first meeting of 2016. After an update from NSF Director France Córdova on NSF’s recent activities, the board spent much of the public sessions listening to presentations on NSF’s investments in large facilities and discussing ways to improve their oversight of this vast and heterogeneous portfolio.
This above average attention to large research infrastructure is unsurprising given recent increased scrutiny of NSF’s large facility management by both Congress and NSF’s Inspector General, partly in response to turmoil at the NSF-funded National Ecological Observatory Network. NSF is now in the process of replacing the managing contractor for the beleaguered project.
This was also the first board meeting since the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) completed a study, requested by NSF and NSB, on the foundation’s use of cooperative agreements to manage large facilities. The report includes recommendations for NSF and NSB on how to clarify and improve their joint role in facility oversight. Just one day after the board meeting, the House Science Committee held a hearing to discuss the NAPA study.
The board reacted positively to the report’s recommendations, seeing them as a good catalyst for the NSB to rethink its approach to facilities oversight. Members attributed some of their past difficulties conducting effective oversight to the board’s cohort structure in which a third of members are replaced every two years. To help reduce this deficit of institutionalized knowledge and discuss potential next steps, a subset of the board is convening an all-day, in-person meeting dedicated to facilities and will report back at the next NSB meeting.
Before facilities discussion, talk of medals and moonshots, then wastebooks and harassment
Córdova began on a positive note by highlighting that 13 out of 17 winners of the 2016 National Medals of Science and Technology received NSF support at some point during their careers. She also discussed the relevance of NSF-funded research to two major initiatives recently announced by President Obama: a “moonshot” effort to cure cancer and the “Computer Science For All” initiative to expand K-12 computer science education. In particular, she emphasized that NSF’s funding of computer science education research over many years provides an important knowledge base for the computer science initiative to draw upon.
Next, “changing gears tremendously,” Córdova spoke about NSF’s outreach to Congress in response to the release of multiple “wastebooks” which purport to identify wasteful government spending. These include “Wastebook: The Farce Awakens,” by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and “Federal Fumbles,” by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK). Some of the expenditures highlighted by these reports are individual NSF grants. Córdova noted that instead of just defending NSF’s overall peer review process as they have done in response to previous congressional wastebooks, this time NSF staff met directly with congressional offices to rebut the charge of wastefulness for each NSF grant targeted. NSF's rebuttals to the two wastebooks are posted here and here.
Finally, Córdova mentioned that NSF released a statement in response to recent revelations about sexual harassment in the scientific community. This statement emphasizes NSF’s intolerance of sexual harassment and notes that NSF may revoke funding from institutions that are not in compliance with Title IX standards and protections.
Comprehensive presentation on physical sciences facilities stimulates broad conversation
Discussion of facilities management began in earnest after a presentation by F. Fleming Crim, NSF’s Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS), in which he conveyed the breadth and diversity of facility investments across divisions of the MPS directorate.
Many board members applauded his presentation as a great means of gaining a portfolio-level understanding of the directorate’s facilities and expressed interest in seeing similar presentations for other directorates. They also encouraged him to distribute the presentation widely, especially to early career scientists who may not yet have a sense of the broader research enterprise in which they are embedded. (A video of Crim’s presentation during the Committee on Programs and Plans session can be viewed here.)
However, some cautioned that the linear facilities lifecycle timeline Crim used may be too simplistic in some cases, such as when upgrades could greatly extend the life of a facility. Crim agreed, although he still cautioned that “every facility has a constituency and folks who never want to see things change.” He also emphasized the importance of community advice to NSF’s decisions about divestment in facilities, adding that the astronomy community is remarkably good at building consensus (although not unanimity) on facility decisions.
If NSF decides to divest, he said the preferred option is to secure partnerships that permit the facility to continue operations with decreasing contributions from NSF over time. However, if a partner cannot be found, NSF must consider completely closing the facility. He then noted that NSF has commissioned a number of engineering reports to assess shutdown and environmental remediation costs for certain facilities.
Finally, some board members asked about how to assess MPS’s facility investments in context with relevant facility investments by NASA, the Department of Energy, and other countries. Overall, perhaps the biggest takeaway from the meeting is that the board is clearly interested in gaining a more comprehensive understanding of NSF’s portfolio of facility investments and intends to be a more active overseer of that portfolio in the future.