Strengthening NSF's Prioritization Process for Large Facilities

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Publication date: 
22 January 2004

In order to strengthen the National Science Foundation's procedures for prioritizing, approving, funding, and constructing major research facilities and equipment, a committee of the National Research Council recommends that NSF should seek greater involvement of the science community to develop a clearer, more transparent set of criteria for large facility projects, prepare a 10-20 year roadmap to guide the funding and construction of such facilities, and implement external as well as internal oversight of projects. "Large-research-facility projects have become too complex, expensive, and numerous to handle with procedures that may have sufficed in the past," the Committee on Setting Priorities for NSF-Sponsored Large Research Facility Projects says in its report. In addition, the committee found that "a number of concerns have been expressed by policy-makers and researchers about the process used to rank large-research-facility projects for funding," including a backlog of approved but unfunded projects, selection criteria that "have not been clearly and publicly articulated," and a lack of funding for idea-generation, conceptual development, planning and design activities.

Such concerns over NSF's ability to manage projects in its Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account prompted Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Christopher Bond (R-MO), Ernest Hollings (D-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and Judd Gregg (R-NH) to call on the National Academies to review NSF's large-facility prioritization process, a request that was also included in the 2002 NSF Authorization Act. Based upon its review, the committee "concluded that although NSF has improved its process for setting priorities among large-facility projects, further strengthening is needed, if NSF is to meet the demands that will be made of it in the future."

The committee's primary recommendation is that, with oversight by the National Science Board (NSB) and substantial input from the science community, NSF produce a roadmap ranking large facility projects being considered for construction within 10-20 years, which would be used in the preparation of annual budget requests and revised every three to five years. The committee proposes that NSF use a three-tiered bottom-up system of criteria for project prioritization: scientific and technical merit criteria should guide project rankings within a field; agency strategic criteria, such as balance across fields and potential to impact several fields, should guide rankings across related fields; and national criteria, such as U.S. leadership in key fields and workforce education and training, should guide rankings across all fields. At the January 14 release of the report, committee chairman William Brinkman of Princeton University emphasized that S&T quality must be at the core of all the criteria, that projects currently under construction must receive a high priority, and that, as the roadmap would be a dynamic document and budget projections are likely to change from year to year, a project's appearance on the roadmap was not a guarantee of funding. He reported that the committee consulted closely with OSTP Director John Marburger during its deliberations, and was briefed by DOE Office of Science Director Ray Orbach on his efforts to develop a 20-year facilities roadmap for large DOE science projects.

Additionally, the committee recommended that NSF enhance project pre-approval planning and budgeting; that each project be reviewed by both internal and external experts; that OSTP have an early role in coordinating roadmaps across S&T agencies and with other countries, and that, given congressional interest in this issue, NSF and NSB "give careful attention to the implementation of reforms in the MREFC account." The committee's report lays out a six-step process to implement its recommendations.

The report, "Setting Priorities for Large Research Facility Projects Supported by the National Science Foundation," is currently available in prepublication form at the following web site: The body of the report runs approximately 32 pages.

As the facilities required for many fields of science become increasingly sophisticated and expensive, policymakers are recognizing a greater need for prioritization and coordination across disciplines, across federal agencies, and even internationally. Within OSTP, "we're do we start to make sense of this bigger picture?" reported an OSTP official to a scientific advisory committee last summer. He warned that, without such coordinated planning, "we are in danger of saturating our available budgets with low priority, redundant, and uncoordinated activities" (see FYI #106, 2003).

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