There was considerable discussion this year about the National Science Foundation’s grant practices. There were three developments in December of note:
On December 3, NSF issued a press release entitled “National Science Foundation Updates Transparency and Accountability Practices.” The release described a meeting of the National Science Board and a briefing by NSF Director France Cordova in which she discussed “new approaches to enhancing transparency and accountability.” The release quotes Cordova: "Good stewardship of public resources requires ongoing examination of our processes and continuous improvement. We will continue to convey the significance of our science and engineering research in supporting the national interest. To do this we must clearly communicate our funding rationale publicly."
The release explains:
“The guidelines for program officers in the Proposal and Award Manual now state that a nontechnical project description must explain the project's significance and importance and ‘serve as a public justification for NSF funding by articulating how the project serves the national interest, as stated by NSF's mission: to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; or to secure the national defense.’ The titles and abstracts of NSF's awards are made public on NSF.gov.”
This Friday, the foundation’s “NSF’s Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide” will be amended to include the following:
"Should a proposal be recommended for award, the PI may be contacted by the NSF Program Officer for assistance in preparation of the public award abstract and its title. An NSF award abstract, with its title, is an NSF document that describes the project and justifies the expenditure of Federal funds."
On December 10, House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) issued a statement citing the above NSF release. Smith has criticized the foundation’s grant practices. Smith stated:
“I am encouraged by the NSF’s announcement that it will increase transparency and accountability for taxpayer-supported scientific research. For more than a year, I have been calling for the NSF to provide public explanations for how NSF research grants are in the national interest and worthy of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. The NSF’s new policy is a step in the right direction. Congress and taxpayers will be eager to see how the new NSF national interest criterion is implemented.”
On December 16 the President signed the FY 2015 Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act. The bill was silent on this matter. There is no mention of grant practices in the overall NSF language or in the section on its Research and Related Activities except for language supportive of neuroscience research.
In mid-May, the House report accompanying the FY 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill commented on awards made by the foundation’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Directorate. Some of the Directorate’s awards had been criticized by prominent House leaders, including Science Committee Chairman Smith. Note that this language remains operable:
“Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) sciences.—Longstanding congressional concerns persist about the merit of activities funded through NSF’s SBE Directorate. In order to address these concerns, NSF must ensure that SBE awards are consistent with NSF’s scientific quality standards and aligned to national interests. The Committee recognizes the intrinsic value in SBE sciences and the direct responsiveness of SBE activities to Committee priorities, including studies on the effects of youth exposure to media violence and the collection of data for STEM education indicators.”
There was no language in the Senate Appropriations Committee report pertaining to SBE awards or award practices.
The Obama Administration requested a 1.2 percent increase for NSF in FY 2015. The final bill provided an increase of twice that amount, 2.4 percent. The Administration requested essentially flat funding for Research and Related Activities; the final bill appropriated an increase of 2.2 percent.