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NSF Launches Internal Review to Mend Relations With Congress

10 December 2013 1:00 pm
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Better explanation. A National Science Foundation committee is exploring ways to better explain to the public and Congress how its grants meet national goals, including improving the abstracts describing each funded project.

National Science Foundation/Fast Lane

Better explanation. A National Science Foundation committee is exploring ways to better explain to the public and Congress how its grants meet national goals, including improving the abstracts describing each funded project.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is taking another shot at explaining itself to Congress and the public. And it has a lot riding on the outcome.

In recent years, several Republican legislators have criticized the $7 billion agency for funding research that they consider to be frivolous or undeserving of federal support. Last month, the science committee in the House of Representatives held a hearing on draft legislation that would impose new requirements on NSF before it makes any award.

In response to those concerns, acting NSF Director Cora Marrett is assembling a panel of senior managers to recommend how the 63-year-old agency can do a better job of describing how NSF’s overall research portfolio is consistent with its mission to “promote the progress of science … advance prosperity … and secure the national defense.” The panel is part of a broader “framework” review that Marrett described in a 19 November memo to the community.

This week, Marrett named the leaders of the working group: Peter Arzberger, senior adviser to the director, and Mark Weiss, head of NSF’s division of behavioral and social sciences. The division has been a special target of legislators, and in March Congress blocked NSF from making any grants in political science unless it could certify that the research fostered economic development or national security.

The panel has yet to meet. But Arzberger says he expects it will need to spend “several months of hard work” reviewing NSF’s current practices before coming up with recommendations to improve “accountability and transparency” at the agency. One area sure to get attention is the abstracts that describe each approved grant. Legislators frequently cite those short descriptions as evidence that the research in question is not addressing “a national interest.”

Part of the problem, Arzberger and Weiss say, is that those abstracts fail to explain how any particular research project addresses a broader scientific challenge. “Program officers are usually specialists in a particular area and they almost inherently know what the big questions they want to answer,” Weiss notes. “So it’s not always foremost in their minds to back up a step and say to the rest of the world, ‘Here are the big questions in my particular area of science.’ ”

Weiss likened the process to “a pointillist painting. If you focus on any one dot, or any one project in science, you don’t see the big picture. But if you pull back, the dots start to contribute to something greater than the sum of the parts.”

Those narratives need to reach the broadest possible audience, according to Weiss and Arzberger. “It includes colleagues in academia, people at other federal agencies, the public, those in Congress and the executive branch, and so on,” Weiss says.

Asked whether individual investigators will have a chance to offer input, Weiss and Arzberger said that the panel has not decided how it will operate. “I don’t think it’s totally internal,” Weiss says. “We’re all partners in this activity. … PIs [principal investigators] will need to work with program officers and the foundation to think more deeply about how they communicate their science to a broad audience, not just to their colleagues.

“I don’t think it will be anything that is onerous,” Weiss adds. “But we will ask them to help us think about the transparency of what we are doing.”