House sharpens oversight of new NSF facilities

Problems building the National Ecological Observatory Network spurred new legislation.

NSF/Neon Inc.

House sharpens oversight of new NSF facilities

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.)

Specifically, the bill would require NSF to reanalyze how much every large research project would cost within the first year of the start of construction. NSF officials say they do such “incurred cost” audits as needed, generally later in the process, because they are expensive and time-consuming. Such an audit would not have caught the problems that NEON is facing, they add. The officials also worry that putting additional restrictions on management fees will scare off some highly qualified would-be bidders for future projects.

NSF officials and Democrat legislators are hoping the bill will be tweaked by the Senate. Although there is no equivalent legislation pending in that body, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is putting the finishing touches on a new version of the America COMPETES Act, a broader bill to reauthorize programs at NSF and research at the departments of energy and commerce that could include language on NSF’s oversight of major facilities.

Senator Cory Gardner (R–CO), a key player in drafting the bill, told ScienceInsider yesterday that he hopes the long-awaited COMPETES revision will be introduced before Congress recesses next month for the political conventions. The version adopted last year by the House contains several provisions that have angered the scientific community, and its lobbyists are counting on the Senate’s version to be more to their liking.