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Special Report: Can NSF Put the Right Spin on Rotators? Part 1

23 October 2013 8:45 pm
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A program that lets scientists work temporarily at NSF has important strengths—and serious weaknesses.

NSF

Rotation. A program that lets scientists work temporarily at NSF has important strengths—and serious weaknesses.

NSF Urged to Improve Oversight of Program for Scientists on Loan

The peer-review system at the National Science Foundation (NSF) has earned kudos from scientists from around the world for its quality and transparency. It’s also seen as proof that the U.S. government can do something right. But a little-known fact is that the system relies upon people who aren’t employed by NSF—or any federal agency.

One-third of the program officers who manage peer review at NSF are actually still working for their home institution, typically a university. But they can spend time at NSF, typically from 1 to 4 years, under a mechanism created by the 1970 Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA).

These transient scientists, called rotators or IPAs, have become an essential part of the NSF culture over the past few decades. In addition to managing a heavy workload, they are expected to keep NSF abreast of the latest trends in their fields and bring some fresh perspectives on how to spend the agency’s $7 billion research budget.

Indeed, NSF itself credits rotators with keeping the agency on the cutting edge of science. “While NSF’s permanent staff are highly knowledgeable and capable,” explains a recent white paper on the use of rotators, “the ever changing global science, engineering, and education landscape requires NSF to continually complement its permanent staff with the expertise of individuals from the broader research and education community.”

 The heads of most directorates and a majority of division directors spend only a few years at NSF.

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FIGURE 1. In motion. The heads of most directorates and a majority of division directors are rotators who spend only a few years at NSF.

But there’s also a downside to NSF’s heavy use of rotators. In recent years, some key members of Congress have repeatedly complained about how NSF manages the staffers, raising concerns about added costs, lax oversight, and a loss of management continuity. The worries have triggered three reports by NSF’s in-house watchdog, the Office of Inspector General (IG), that have revealed, among other things, that a rotator can cost NSF as much as 23% more than a regular government employee doing the same job. It’s an issue that lawmakers are sure to raise with incoming NSF Director France Córdova, who is awaiting Senate confirmation.

At least one former NSF rotator, meanwhile, has learned that the apparent benefits of keeping one’s salary and position and not having to become a civil servant leaves them defenseless if tensions arise in the workplace (see Part 2, "Scientists on Loan to NSF Have No Protection if Job Conduct Is Questioned").

An important resource

NSF stands out among U.S. research agencies in its reliance on IPAs. They comprise 12% of NSF’s overall workforce (190 out of 1545 full-time slots last year), according to a March 2013 audit of the program by the inspector general. (The comparable figure is less than 1% for five other research agencies surveyed by the IG.) They are even more common at senior management levels, where major decisions are made. Roughly one-half of NSF’s 30-some division directors are IPAs, and only one of NSF’s seven research directorates is now led by a permanent federal employee (see figure 1).

Rotators don’t come cheaply. The average temporary staffer costs NSF $36,448 more than a permanent employee, according to the IG’s report. That adds up to an extra $6.7 million a year (see figure 2).

The additional cost stems from a conscious decision by NSF to go easy on a rotator’s pocketbook. Rotators get to keep their current salary—which is often higher than the federal pay scale—and benefits, including contributions to their retirement accounts. They can receive up to $22,000 a year in temporary living expenses to offset the cost of having to maintain two residences. In addition, rotators are reimbursed for their trips home to do research. (IPAs are allowed to spend up to 50 days a year back at their home institutions maintaining their research programs.)

In an era of tight budgets, rotators represent a hidden tax on NSF’s bottom line. So the natural question for lawmakers is: Are they worth it?

Unequivocally yes, says NSF, which lacks any in-house researchers. A 2004 report by the National Academy of Public Administration endorsed continued use of rotators. And this year’s white paper applauds their role in fulfilling “NSF’s need for a steady infusion of new ideas from the research community.”

The program also serves as a promotional tool. “Experience shows that the best way to gain familiarity with an institution, its practices, and its culture is to spend time within the institution,” notes the white paper. “Such knowledge transfer is critically important in retaining the community’s trust in NSF’s merit review procedures and in recruiting others to serve the foundation as future staff, reviewers, and advisors.”

Dividends accrue to the rotators and their home institutions as well. Returning IPAs share their knowledge of how Washington operates with colleagues and university administrators, information that presumably benefits the institution in its dealings with the federal government. And spending time at NSF gives rotators a chance to help shape their discipline and to build contacts that could boost their careers. (For an unknown but significant percentage of rotators, NSF is a steppingstone to a new job.)

Being a rotator can be a heady experience for an academic, says John Conway, who recently retired as a mathematics professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “When you first start work here you are often told that you make recommendations only,” Conway wrote in 2005 about serving as a program officer (PO) in NSF’s division of mathematics sciences. “But for individual grants the PO effectively determines the fate of the proposal. … [It] is probably more power than most mathematicians think resides in the hands of POs, and it is more power than most rotators anticipate having.” (Conway’s account appeared in the June/July 2005 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.)

  Rotators can retain their salaries, which in many cases exceed what federal workers in the same job would earn.

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FIGURE 2. High-priced talent. Rotators can retain their salaries, which in many cases exceed what federal workers in the same job would earn. Other benefits include the cost of maintaining a second residence, frequent trips back to their home institution, and replacement of lost consulting income.

Paying their share

In its three reports since 2010, the NSF inspector general acknowledges that the IPA program is worthwhile but argues that NSF hasn’t looked hard enough for ways to save money. “While we recognize the benefits that come from having IPAs at NSF, we did not find evidence that NSF has examined the additional costs incurred and sought ways to reduce those costs,” the IG concluded in its March 2013 report. A 2012 audit on the travel component of the IPA program found that monitoring was lax and that “NSF had not fully assessed its impact on [overall] travel costs, staff time, and NSF workload.”

Specifically, the IG said NSF has been leaving money on the table in negotiating agreements for individual IPAs with the home institution. Although institutions are asked to contribute 15% of an IPA’s salary and fringe benefits while they serve at NSF, the average is only 2%. And few universities believe they need to ante up at all. Only 17% of institutions reimburse NSF for any portion of the cost, according to the IG’s report.

NSF is also failing to enforce a formula that caps an IPA’s salary during the summer to the maximum federal pay rate for the job they are doing at NSF, according to the IG. This policy is intended to bring IPA salaries in line with what NSF pays scientists on grants; faculty salaries are usually paid over 9 months, with research grants covering the rest of the year. But the IG found that only 39% of IPAs are paid at that typically lower rate during the summer.

NSF officials told the IG that such generosity was essential to attract the best scientists. “According to the human resource staff, NSF generally pays the higher salary amount as the IPA may not accept the assignment otherwise,” the report states. But the IG is dubious of that claim: “We did not see any evidence that NSF had attempted to negotiate salary with IPAs.”

The IG report also recommends that NSF save money by encouraging IPAs to work part of the time from their home institutions, instead of coming to the agency’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. “An increased use of telework seems to be a realistic option” for any IPA not in the top management ranks, the IG argued. In June, NSF officials promised to look into each recommendation and report back to the IG by the end of January 2014. A NSF spokesperson told ScienceInsider that “NSF is committed to evaluating the possibility of relying to a greater degree on the use of remote work arrangements.” In its official reply to the IG’s report, the agency noted that it will pay particular attention to “the cost/benefit and policy ramifications of IPAs working part-time offsite.”

Members of the U.S. Senate appropriations panel that approves NSF’s spending are likely to keep a close eye on the issue. Apart from the higher personnel costs, legislators also worry that NSF’s reliance on short-term rotators makes the agency vulnerable to a loss of institutional knowledge and programmatic swerves. “[T]he rotational director model, which although [it] brings fresh scientific insight and perspective to the agency, creates gaps in management oversight,” the panel noted in a 2010 report.

Reliance on a transient workforce has several inherent problems. Rotators face a steep learning curve upon their arrival. They aren’t familiar with what new ideas are really novel and which have actually already been tried and failed. In seeking to make a mark, a rotator may try to move programs in one direction—only to have his or her successor take a different tack. Rotators also often lack the type of inside-the-Beltway knowledge and links to other agencies that could leverage NSF’s investments.

Lawmakers also have concerns about how NSF evaluates IPAs. In response, in 2010 the IG issued a report that found that IPAs did not go through NSF’s normal system of annual performance reviews, “even though they function in the same capacities as NSF’s federal executives.” The report prompted NSF to dust off a 2005 recommendation from its human resource department to incorporate IPAs into the formal evaluation process that had been gathering dust. This year, NSF finally began to implement the practice.

The IPA program is no panacea, NSF officials acknowledge. Even with the generous salary and benefits allowed under the 1970 law, “NSF still struggles to attract the Nation’s leading researchers to temporary public service,” says NSF’s white paper. And Congress admits to setting the bar high. In asking for the IG to investigate the IPA program and other management concerns, the Senate committee said its goal was to “ensur[e] that NSF’s management of its funds matches the world-class status of its science.”

Rotators are clearly one way to achieve that goal. But the question for NSF and its congressional overseers is how to do that more effectively.

Read Part 2, "Scientists on Loan to NSF Have No Protection if Job Conduct Is Questioned."

Further reading:

About NSF Rotator Positions, from the National Science Foundation.

“The life of an NSF Program Officer,” a three-part series posted on The Spandrel Shop blog by honey bee research Michelle Elekonich of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“Rotating at the National Science Foundation,” by John B. Conway, published in a 2005 edition of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

“ ‘Rotators’ in the National Science Foundation’s Geosciences Directorate,” a report on a survey, in a 2007 edition of Eos.

“Ready for the Bigger Picture? Become a Program Director at NSF!” A 2013 article by Hans Kaper of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

“Rotating scientists recall time at NSF,” an article in the March 2005 edition of Staff Notes, published by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

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