Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Examines the Planning and Management of NSF Research Facilities

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Publication date: 
22 May 2012

On April  18, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on  Research and Science Education held the second in a series of hearings focused  on major multi-user research facilities management.  While the previous hearing focused on the National  Science Foundation’s (NSF) Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction  (MREFC) account funding, the subject of this second hearing was the research  and related activities funding which supports “the  operation and maintenance of existing facilities, Federally Funded Research and  Development Centers (FFRDCs), and planning and development activities.”  

This  research infrastructure has a significant impact on large segments of the  science and engineering population. We in Congress need to ensure the planning,  operations, management and overall stewardship of these projects is being  carried out responsibly and in the best interest of the American taxpayer,” stated  Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL).

Brooks and Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) each expressed  their interest in learning the way these facilities are managed while examining  the issue of recompetition of their management contracts. 

In his opening statement, Lipinski asked questions to the  witnesses about the process for decommissioning user facilities as well as the  recompetition process for facilities which have significant international  partnerships or which sit  on land owned by the respective universities that manage them.”

The  hearing charter prepared by the committee’s staff explains:

“Major multi-user facilities work  through contracts or cooperative agreements between NSF and principal  investigators (PI) responsible for the facility…. The majority of the NSF  funded multi-user facilities have transitioned to five-year cooperative  agreements. Every five years, the NSF program officer responsible for the  facility makes a recommendation to the National Science Board (NSB) as to the  renewal, recompetition, or termination of support for the facility.”

In 2008 the NSB drafted a resolution outlining its support  for the regular recompetition of multi-user research facilities stating “that all expiring awards  are to be recompeted, because rarely will it be in the best interest of U.S.  science and engineering research and education not to do so. Furthermore, the  Board endorsed a recompetition policy for major facility awards which is  transparent to the research community such that after construction of major  facilities is completed, followed by an appropriate time period to bring the  facility to sustainable operations, full and open competition of the operations  award will be required.”

Five  witnesses testified.  Ethan Schreier,  President of Associated Universities, Incorporated (AUI), the non-profit  corporation that operates the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO),  addressed issues of international collaboration at the new international  Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) as well as recompetition at  that facility: 

“The Cooperative Agreements for  both NRAO and ALMA Operations expire in 2015. NSB issued a resolution that,  ‘urges the use of a recompetition plan that ensures that the recompetition of  the management and operation of ALMA is separated from the recompetition of the  management and operation of NRAO.’ NRAO and AUI believe that separating ALMA  and NRAO management would have a seriously negative impact on science in the  U.S. The scientific, engineering, and administrative staffs supporting these  instruments are highly integrated, which produces cost efficiencies and helps  ensure that US researchers reap the scientific benefits of the US investment in  ALMA. Splitting them apart would result in an enormous loss of efficiency and  expertise that would cause the US research community and all Observatory  components to suffer and increase the costs of operations to the US taxpayer.  AUI and NRAO have urged NSF to keep NRAO and ALMA operations under a single  Cooperative Agreement.”

William  Smith, Jr. President of the Association of Universities for Research in  Astronomy (AURA) spoke about the role of AURA as a consortium of universities  that manages the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the National  Solar Observatory (NSO), the Gemini Observatory, and the Larch Synoptic Survey  Telescope (LSST) project.  Regarding the  decision process to recompete, Smith suggested that “the goal of building effective national organizations should be the  highest level objective by the NSF. Other administrative goals such as  recompetition, are a means, but not the only means, to achieving this central  goal. A wide range of factors should be considered in making a decision to  recompete.”

Smith also addressed the costs of decommissioning facilities,  stating that “decommissioning is an  essential element of the evolution of scientific facilities but costs should be  included in an NSF-wide budget such as MREFC.”  Smith recognized that “international collaborations and other forms of partnership in many  cases call for governance structures that could be complex,” but he emphasized  that “it is crucial that the US community  perceive that scientific return and management control are commensurate with  the US investment.”

David  Divins, Program Director of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program – US  Implementing Organization (IODP-USIO), focused on the impacts of fuel prices as  well as the topic of contracts in his testimony.  He addressed the impact of increasing fuel  prices on the Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling (JOIDES)  Resolution (JR) facility, stating that they had been devastating, reducing our ability to operate the facility at  an optimal level. At the time the JR was returning to operations, within NSF  there appeared to be a shift in the way facilities were funded and all  operations and maintenance costs for new facilities (like the JR) were to be  accounted for within existing divisional budgets. The result on the facility  was a decrease in operations from 12 months to 8 months per year. The reality  is that for a 20% increase in funding we could deliver 40% more fundamental and  groundbreaking science and be operating our facility at an optimal level.”

Gregory  Boebinger, Director of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab),  and Sol Gruner, Director and Principal Investigator of the Cornell High Energy  Synchrotron Source (CHESS)/Cornell Electron Storage Ring (CESR) each testified  on the management and involvement of non-profits and other organizations at  their facilities as well as on the subject of recompetition.  

Boebinger explained the three stages of competitive review  and funding of the MagLab stating that the NSF decides funding for the MagLab  for the coming year through their annual review process, adding that the MagLab  Renewal Proposal process includes “a  rigorous NSF review as well as the articulation of a new scientific vision and  zero-baseline budget for the laboratory,” and noted that a full  ‘winner-take-all’ recompetition is expected “sometime  in the near future.”

Regarding  decisions to launch a full recompetition, Boebinger stated that the criteria  for commencing a full recompetition should include an assessment of the  performance of the present facility, the “impact  of recompetition on future scientific and business management performance, and  suitability of existing infrastructure,” as well as the “impact of recompetition on non-federal funding  partnerships who have invested significantly in the current national facility.”  He suggested that “the National Science Board’s recompetition policy should  factor in these and other relevant issues and should give the NSF flexibility  in its implementation of the policy.”

Gruner’s  testimony highlighted the world class science, new technology developments and  student training that takes place at CHESS.   Gruner said that “CHESS is able to  serve only about one-third of the demand for time on its beamlines….  CHESS data results in about one publication  for each day of user operations.”

Questions  from Members included Brooks’ inquiry as to whether facilities faced  vulnerabilities due to regular recompetition.   Gruner stated that if facilities are recompeted then the staff would be  replaced.  Divins discussed the pros and  cons to the recompetition process citing that while the cost of contracts can  be prohibitively expensive the recompetition process also can provide funding  for new staff hiring and equipment improvements.  Smith questioned whether the recompetition  process is really serving the community in the best possible way and pointed  out the uncertainty that comes every five years as a result of this  process.  Schreier explained that there  are many international agreements subject to international labor laws and that  relations with foreign partners need to be considered since the recompetition  of a facility can sometimes result in staff changes that affect the  relationship between that facility and foreign partners. 

Lipinski  asked Smith whether there are alternatives to recompetition and also questioned  how decommissioning costs should be addressed in the MREFC budget.  Smith discussed how merging separate organizations  impedes recompetition.  Schreier stated  that separating two facilities, ALMA and NRAO, would result in a large increase  in cost.   Smith advocated for an  Agency-wide pool of money to address the cost of decommissioning a facility  while Boebinger and Divins stated that decommissioning funds at their  facilities are considered as facilities transition and upgrade to new  equipment. 

Paul Tonko  (D-NY) requested more information about what other actions the NSF could take  in order to strengthen the outcome of the recompetition process.  Gruner assured him that there is “no one size  fits all” and that “some flexibility and common sense has to be applied” to  this process. 

Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR)  asked about science technology engineering and math (STEM) education programs  at the various facilities.  Smith  described the Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) program at his  facility and discussed how the research experiences for students help improve  diversity in STEM fields.  Boebinger stated that the  MagLab has a center that brings together K-12 students with undergraduates and  that there is a successful annual open house each year.  He went into detail about a program offering  research experiences for teachers as well as the MagLab REU program.  Schreier stated  that his facilities also have REU programs and highlighted the outreach program  at the telescope in West Virginia.

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