Aiming to prevent a repeat of what legislators say were management lapses at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Congress yesterday moved a step closer to tightening up the rules the agency must follow in building and operating large research facilities.
By a vote of 412 to nine, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill (H.R. 5049) that proponents say will prevent the type of problems that have plagued NSF’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) under construction at dozens of sites across the country. The overwhelming margin of victory reflects both the popularity of such oversight legislation and a bipartisan political consensus that NSF stumbled in policing the $434 million project, which was downsized last year and then put under new management after it fell behind schedule and threatened to go $80 million over budget.
The legislation, which covers details only an accountant could love, embraces recommendations from NSF’s inspector general, the agency’s in-house but independent watchdog, as well as from outside bodies such as the National Academy of Public Administration. NSF has already implemented some of them, including staffing up its Large Facilities Office and clarifying how management fees can be used. But agency officials told ScienceInsider they remain concerned about changes the legislation would make in how audits are conducted and the use of management fees for a contractor. (The first NEON contractor has admitted to using a portion of its fee on entertainment, which at the time was an allowable expense.)