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NSF Counsel Lashes Out at Scientists Asking About Protections for Rotators

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) top lawyer has rebuked a group of U.S. scientists who asked for an explanation of its policies governing temporary workers. The response appears to have widened a rift between that community and NSF over a program designed to keep the agency on the cutting edge of research.

Roughly one-third of NSF program officers are rotators, scientists who come to the agency for a few years from another institution to manage programs in their area of expertise. But unlike regular federal employees who are protected by civil service rules, rotators are “at will” workers who can be sent packing at the discretion of NSF or their home institution.

Last fall, the executive committee of the 4000-member Space Physics and Aeronomy (SPA) section of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) met during the annual AGU meeting to discuss NSF’s treatment of rotators. The discussion was triggered by a case involving Anja Strømme, a colleague whose stint at NSF had ended abruptly. (Strømme’s case was described in detail in ScienceInsider.)

The group “decided unanimously that we should get involved” in raising the issue with NSF, says James Klimchuk, SPA section president and a solar physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “But we also decided not to mention [Strømme’s] case.” 

Acting on their own behalf, the section’s leaders drafted a three-paragraph letter asking NSF to clarify how rotators—also called IPAs after the 1970 law, the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, that allows agencies to employ them—are treated. Specifically, they asked NSF to explain “the policies and procedures governing due process when disputes arise.”

The 15 March letter cited the “crucial service” that rotators provide and the importance of attracting “the best individuals in our community.” But it also included an explicit warning: “In the absence of such documents, we will advise our peers against service as rotators.” As Klimchuk explains, “We’re concerned about what might happen to future rotators.”

The letter went to NSF acting Director Cora Marrett. After it and several follow-up e-mails elicited no reply, the scientists mentioned their concerns in the section’s 5 May electronic newsletter.

“Our understanding is that rotators serve ‘at will’ and can be dismissed without formal review or appeal at any time during their appointment,” wrote President-Elect David Sibeck, also at NASA Goddard. Sibeck noted that the problem isn’t simply one of rotators being shown the door without any recourse. A sudden dismissal, he wrote in the newsletter, “exposes researchers dependent on grant funding to the risk of an unexpected and significant interruption in funding.”

Going public with their concerns seems to have had the desired effect. But a 14 May response from NSF’s general counsel, Lawrence Rudolph, wasn’t what the scientists were expecting.

“We had hoped for a reply that said, ‘Here are our policies,’ ” Klimchuk explained. “Or maybe, ‘You’re right, we need to develop policies and we’re going to form a committee to look into the issue.’ ” Instead, Rudolph sent a blistering three-page statement that has upset the community. “We were very disappointed,” Klimchuk says. “The letter ignored our concerns, which focused on the working environment for future rotators.”

Rudolph begins his reply by saying “I do not understand your ‘request’ ” for information about rotators because those policies “are already contained and referenced in the current agreements between NSF and the grantee institution.” He characterizes their intent to raise the issue with potential rotators as tantamount to blackmail: “It is so disappointing, therefore, that you tell us that if we do not acquiesce to your ‘requests’, you and your colleagues will personally tell other potential rotators not to come to NSF.”

The NSF general counsel also dismisses the scientists’ concerns as naïve. “As for your due process concerns, you are apparently unwilling to accept that IPAs are not federal employees,” Rudolph writes. “If you were to make a similar demand to your respective universities or federal agencies … I doubt such a demand would be seriously considered.”

Klimchuk says the policies that Rudolph referenced relate to an agency’s authority to hire rotators or to NSF’s policies regarding security, teleworking, ethical conduct, and other everyday workplace issues, not the questions he and his colleagues were raising. “Our point was that rotators don’t enjoy the same protections as regular civil servants,” he says.

Klimchuk says the scientists also were dismayed that the NSF letter refers specifically to Strømme’s case, even though they hadn’t mentioned it. Even worse, he says, the letter casts aspersions on their knowledge of what happened.

“[Y]ou presumably are upset over the departure of a particular rotator,” Rudolph writes. Two paragraphs later, he berates the scientists for “the fact that you and your colleagues apparently do not wish to even consider whether there might have been more than one side to whatever you may have heard, read, or been told.” At the same time Rudolph is blasting the scientists for being misinformed, however, he reminds them that “NSF has no intention of publicly ‘debating’ her departure” because “it would also be inappropriate and disrespectful.”

Rudolph asked the section to publish his response, which ran in the 26 May issue of the section’s online newsletter alongside the section’s letter to NSF. Rudolph did not respond to a request from ScienceInsider to discuss his letter.

Klimchuk says there are no immediate plans to reply to Rudolph’s letter and that “the prevailing view is not to take further action.” Although a few scientists want to pursue the issue, he says, many are worried that NSF could decide to punish them for criticizing the agency. At the same time, he says “we do intend to share our concerns with colleagues who might be thinking about becoming a rotator.”

Strømme did not sign the SPA letter. But she e-mailed ScienceInsider that she is very upset by NSF’s response. “It saddens me that NSF does not seem to have an interest in fixing the very valuable and important but, unfortunately, broken IPA system,” writes Strømme, who returned to her previous job as a government contractor after leaving NSF in March 2013. “I am also surprised and disappointed that the OGC [Office of the General Counsel] is answering a general letter from the science community with a misguided and false attack on me [assuming I am the ‘rotator in question’ and that no other former female IPA is under a similar attack].”

She adds, “I still hope we can at some point very soon stop this very destructive debate and work toward what I see as our common goal: To ensure a safe and healthy work environment for IPAs and to ensure good recruitment to IPA positions so the best funding decisions can be made within the foundation.”

*Clarification, 9 June, 11:20 a.m.: The letter to NSF was not an official correspondence from the Space Physics and Aeronomy section of AGU but an expression of concern from individuals who are members of the section.