The National Science Foundation (NSF) suffered the first political fallout yesterday from its oversight of the troubled National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) under construction.
The science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved by voice vote a measure that would set new rules on how NSF builds and operates large new scientific facilities like NEON. Republican legislators who are championing the bill (HR 5049) say it’s needed to curb abuses in a system that led to an $80 million projected cost overrun for NEON and forced NSF to fire the contractor on the $433 million project.
“The committee seeks to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted on mismanagement and questionable costs,” said the committee’s chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), in his opening statement yesterday. “This bill will achieve that goal. It addresses gaps in project oversight and management through solutions identified by the NSF inspector general, auditors, an outside review panel, and the committee’s own work.”
But NSF officials say the legislation would limit the agency’s ability to hire the best managers and impose additional requirements that it says are unnecessary given new practices it adopted in the wake of NEON’s problems. “NSF already has rigorous oversight, reporting, and control processes regarding its major facilities, and is currently implementing internal standard operating guidance to further clarify and codify these processes,” says an NSF spokesperson. “Further, NSF abides by existing regulations that provide consistency across the federal government.”
The legislation deals with the accounting minutia involved in a large government contract, including how best to monitor spending before and during construction and whether the contractor should be allowed to receive a management fee for running the project. As such, it may seem unimportant to the average scientist. But it was NEON’s bungling of such issues that put the project in the public spotlight and invited the type of congressional scrutiny that led to the current legislation.
Democrats on the committee voiced grudging support for the legislation. That’s a marked change in the bitter partisanship that has marred many recent pieces of legislation that the committee has adopted since Smith became chairman in 2013. But they made it clear that they think the new bill is far from the ideal approach.
“Over the past weeks chairman Smith’s staff and my own have tried to work on bill language that would be acceptable to all parties,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the ranking minority member, at the start of the hearing. “We have made a great deal of progress, and I think that with the addition of the manager’s amendment and my own amendment, I can support moving the bill forward in the legislative process.”
In particular, Johnson and other Democrats are worried that the new rules could make it harder for NSF to build the type of cutting-edge facilities that will advance the scientific frontier. “At the end of the day, those interested parties are the ones that will actually build the telescopes and conduct the groundbreaking science, and as such, their views carry great weight with me,” Johnson said. “Moreover, it is very important that we don’t unintentionally increase the risk to the taxpayer for these large projects.”
Republicans agreed to modify their original bill, which was officially introduced only 1 day before yesterday’s markup, to remove a few provisions that Democrats felt were especially onerous. In particular, it now allows contractors to collect a management fee if they can justify their need for one instead of only if they can prove “no other financial resources [are] available.” NSF officials worried that deep-pocketed organizations like the Battelle Memorial Institute, the new contractor for NEON, would be scared off from future projects if Congress imposed such a strict requirement on management fees. Johnson also won approval for an amendment that gives NSF more leeway in monitoring the projected cost of the project.
That type of compromise was greased by a slight improvement in the relationship between the committee and NSF leadership. “I recognize that the NSF is taking steps to better manage the costs of NEON, which include firing the [previous] management organization [NEON Inc],” Smith noted at the start of the markup. “However, it is time to make systematic changes for all current and future major projects.
Smith promised to consider further suggestions from Democrats—“I do still consider this legislation a work in progress,” Johnson noted—before the bill advances to the House floor. There is no comparable legislation in the Senate, and the bill faces steep odds of winning final passage in the current Congress.