Over the past two months, a House Science Committee bill designed to tighten the NSF's management and financial oversight of its large research facilities has moved quickly from introduction to full House passage.
By a vote of 412 to 9, the House passed legislation on Tuesday to adopt a series of reforms to the National Science Foundation’s management of its large facilities. The bill, which has strong bipartisan support, would strengthen NSF’s internal capacity to support its facilities, and it would require the foundation to provide greater financial oversight and controls of its facilities, including putting in place a prohibition on spending taxpayer dollars on alcohol, lobbying, concert tickets, or unnecessary travel.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), chairman of the oversight subcommittee of House Science Committee, introduced the bill in April, building on a series of hearings he and full committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) held over the last two years that examined allegations of financial mismanagement at NSF. Those hearings focused primarily on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), an NSF research facility that has been beleaguered by investigations in recent years following auditor and whistleblower claims of financial mismanagement and impropriety. The House Science Committee advanced the legislation with a voice vote on April 27.
Bill wins bipartisan support from key committee leaders
On the House floor on Monday, Loudermilk chided NSF for what he claims has been years of financial mismanagement of its large facilities:
The proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars is paramount when executing projects of this magnitude. ... As a former small business owner and as the former director of a nonprofit, I, wholeheartedly, understand the importance of accountability. ... The NSF has received warnings about this kind of irresponsible spending over the past four years, and it has not taken adequate measures to resolve the matter. This bill will ensure that the NSF makes the systematic changes necessary to restore confidence in federally funded research projects and that taxpayers can trust us with their money in their knowing that it will be spent in the manner it was intended.
When full committee Chairman Smith spoke on the floor later in the hour, he explained that the bill is intended to ensure that the kinds of problems discovered at NEON do not surface again with future NSF facilities:
The bill's approach to these…reforms ensures that no current or future large-scale research project faces the same financial mismanagement that plagued one of NSF's largest projects, the $400 million [NEON]. Last September, we learned that the project was likely to be $80 million over budget and 18 months behind schedule. I recognize that the NSF is taking steps to better manage the cost of NEON, which include firing the management organization; however, it is time to make systemic changes for all current and future major research projects.
In March, NSF chose Battelle Memorial Institute to complete construction of NEON and transition it from construction phase into operations within NSF’s biological sciences research directorate.
Full committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) praised the track record of NSF facilities and their tremendous scientific value, but in supporting the bill she also concurred that proper management is essential:
As the [Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO)] project demonstrated, these efforts involving major facilities have the potential to generate profound breakthroughs in science and to inspire a whole new generation of our best and brightest to pursue careers in STEM. However, these major facilities also cost a lot of money. Properly managing those large expenses is critical to ensuring the success of the major facilities projects and is, ultimately, critical to the advancement of science.
Johnson tempered her support for the bill, however, with a word of caution to Congress about overreaching with too rigid rules for the foundation, saying that the foundation’s record overall has been a “very good one” and that the foundation has already taken “many aggressive steps” to address problems and deficiencies where they exist.
Bill draws on multiple sources of ideas and recommendations
The “NSF Major Research Facility Reform Act of 2016” draws on the committee’s proceedings, recommendations in audits issued by the NSF Inspector General, and a Dec. 2015 National Academy of Public Administration report. Many of the bill’s provisions direct respond to NAPA’s recommendations.
Among the bill’s major provisions, it would mandate:
- A permanent, oversight-focused NSF Large Facilities Office, managed by a senior official reporting to the NSF Director, that provides support to all NSF research facilities;
- Cost proposal audits of projects above $100 million, both before construction and every two years during construction;
- Increased NSF control over the awarding of contingency funds used to address project cost overruns;
- New rules on management fees, which NSF pays contractors to compensate them for managing their facilities, including a prohibition on the expenditure of taxpayer funds on alcohol, lobbying, unnecessary travel, or concert tickets; and
- Training for NSF managers and staff on protections afforded to whistleblowers under the law.
The NSF manages about 15 research facilities across its diverse portfolio, and in any given year three or four new major facilities are under construction, funded through the foundation’s Major Research and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account. Current construction projects underway include the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the Daniel Inouye Solar Telescope, as well as NEON.
These large construction projects tend to last five to 10 years and range in the hundreds of millions of dollars in total project cost. NSF Director France Córdova also recently proposed the creation of a new mid-scale research infrastructure account to complement the current large facilities account.
Before the “NSF Major Research Facility Reform Act” can become law, the Senate will have to consider it as well. As of now, no companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.