Transparency and accountability at the NSF

Cora Marrett, acting director of the National Science Foundation, and other members of NSF leadership attended a Coalition for National Science Funding event last week. Marrett was there to tell the CNSF, which is a coalition of scientific societies, including ASBMB, that advocate on behalf of the NSF, about significant changes taking place at the Foundation.

The biggest effort Marrett wanted to tell the CNSF about was the new NSF Transparency and Accountability Initiative, which launched last week. The Foundation will begin to incorporate a portfolio framework into its grant funding decisions. Basically, each directorate will develop several broad portfolios that each address the mission of the Foundation. To receive funding, grant applications will need to fit into one or more of these portfolios in order to be considered as helping the NSF achieve its mission. The motivation behind this change is to, as Marrett said, ensure every level of the organization in the grant-funding process is mindful of the NSF’s mission. Programs will need to demonstrate that the grants they fund fall within one or more portfolios of the directorate, and the directorate will ensure that the portfolios apply specifically to the NSF mission. Roger Wakimoto, assistant director of the Directorate for Geosciences, suggested this transparency initiative will mean only a minor tweak to the activities of some directorates, but quite a bit of work for others. Wakimoto did not divulge which directorates needed more work. The memo outlining this initiative is quoted in its entirety below.

In addition, the Foundation will work more with scientists who are awarded grants to write titles and abstracts that faithfully represent the work proposed in the grant application, but that are also accessible to the general public. Marrett reminded everyone at the meeting that the work of NSF-funded scientists is paid for by American taxpayers, and the NSF, as stewards of taxpayer money, is trying to ensure that it can properly explain and defend how it spends taxpayer dollars.

At the meeting, Marrett stressed that these changes were “not driven by anyone else’s agenda.” This comment is in reference to House Republicans earlier this year questioning the validity of some of the Foundation’s grant funding decisions. While Marrett may be telling the truth about the implementation of these changes, it is difficult to believe that the probes by House Republicans earlier this year and the recent release of the draft Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act had nothing to do with the content or timing of this initiative.

Follow the ASBMB Policy Blotter for more updates on the NSF and other science funding agencies.

UPDATE: In addition to the memo below, the NSF has also released a notice engaging the scientific community on the agency’s new transparency and accountability initiative.

(Distributed to the Coalition for National Science Funding by Acting Director of the NSF, Cora B. Marrett)

SUBJECT:     Portfolio Framework

As a public agency, the National Science Foundation is responsible for building and sustaining the public trust through the transparency of our processes and the accountability of our organization. This obligation is important to advance our mission, particularly in an era of competing priorities for limited discretionary funds. Today, I would like to share with you a portfolio framework we are adopting to ensure and enhance transparency and accountability at NSF, and outline steps to engage you in most effectively implementing this framework.

This action follows extensive discussions with the National Science Board and with senior NSF management over the last several months and builds on efforts already in place in parts of our organization.  Our goal is to consider and communicate individual investment decisions in the context of broader research portfolio objectives that are aligned with the national interest as defined by NSF’s mission “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defense….” The framework reflects our commitment to continuous improvement in fulfilling our mission, the core value of “accountable” as articulated in the NSF strategic plan, and engages employees at all levels across our organization as follows:

  • Programs demonstrate that funding recommendations advance science, engineering and education through a portfolio of awards that support NSF’s mission. They articulate the content and opportunities of their portfolio and provide grant abstracts that clearly explain to the public the project’s significance and funding justification.
  • Divisions regularly review the development and portfolio of both individual and cross-cutting programs to ensure that investments promote the progress of science, engineering and education, address both intellectual merit and broader impacts, and align with directorate and agency priorities.
  • Directorates and the Office of International and Integrative Activities articulate the substance, goals and priorities of the combined research portfolios they oversee. They carefully assess their investments to ensure that they promote and align with NSF’s mission.
  • Office of the Director establishes the directions and goals of the entire Foundation and conducts an agency-wide management review to ensure that investment decisions promote and align with NSF’s mission and investment priorities.
  • Administrative Offices work with program officers and others in the directorates to identify efficiencies in reviewing, training, and other aspects of continuous improvement for the Foundation.

Initial discussions within offices and directorates have already confirmed our commitment to these efforts, and we now intend to expand these engagements with staff through the following near term actions:

  • Directorate and Office town hall meetings to answer questions and collect feedback within the next two weeks.
  • Establishment of an NSF-wide working group within the next two weeks, to provide recommendations to the NSF leadership team and me on cross-cutting issues and opportunities.
  • Pilot training for program staff on writing effective abstracts and titles, beginning in January.
  • An NSF-wide town hall meeting to share perspectives in January.

As we move ahead, we will identify and leverage effective practices, monitor our progress, and assess the internal and external impact, making adjustments as appropriate.

With your support, this increased focus on transparency and accountability will improve our processes; strengthen our research, infrastructure and human capital development programs; enhance our public and community communications; and advance the national interest.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for all of your hard work that has helped us recover from the recent lapse in appropriations.  You have shown, once again, that through your dedication and commitment, we can overcome adversity and advance our vital mission to the nation.

Thank you in advance for your thoughts, suggestions and support.

Cora B. Marrett

Acting Director

2 thoughts on “Transparency and accountability at the NSF

  1. Pingback: Science Policy Roundup – December 13, 2013 | ASBMB Policy Blotter

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