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To save money, NSF requires university cost-sharing for rotators

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided that universities should pay 10% of the salaries of faculty members working temporarily at the agency. NSF hopes the new policy will demonstrate its commitment to saving taxpayer dollars without alienating the academic community that it relies upon to stay on the cutting edge of basic science. But the changes, which also curb travel and eliminate subsidies for lost consulting opportunities, could make it more difficult for the agency to attract talented academic help.

The rules, announced on Friday, apply to academic researchers who come to NSF for up to 4 years to help the agency manage its research portfolio. These rotators comprise 28% of the agency’s scientific workforce, and about 12% of its overall workforce (see graph, below).

NSF officials have long argued that rotators are important to the agency’s success, because they bring up-to-the-minute knowledge of their fields. And the agency has been willing to pay a premium for that know-how: The average rotator earns $36,500 more than a federal employee in the same position would receive.

Higher academic salaries aren’t the only reason for the pay differential. NSF also subsidizes their travel back to their home institution, and reimburses a rotator for consulting fees lost due to the federal government’s stricter conflict-of-interest policies.

The new rules aim to reduce costs through several changes. One would end the practice of reimbursing for lost consulting income. Another would limit the number of reimbursable trips to 12 annually.

The biggest change, however, will be in the cost-sharing provision. Historically, NSF has asked—but not required—institutions to pay 15% of a rotator’s salary and benefits, subject to negotiations. But agency analyses have found that the average contribution from a university is only about 5%, and a majority of colleges avoid paying anything after pleading poverty. Both Congress and NSF’s Inspector General, its in-house watchdog, have criticized the agency for being too lenient with its cost-sharing provision.

The new policy won’t let universities off the hook so easily. Universities with faculty members joining NSF in the next 12 months will be required to pay 10% of the rotator’s current salary and fringe benefits, says Joanne Tornow, NSF’s chief human capital officer. (The new rules won’t apply to existing rotators, although NSF is hoping that the cost-sharing is folded into any extensions of their annual agreements.)

An NSF staff memo announcing the changes notes that “strongly justified waiver requests [from universities] may be considered.” But Tornow says that clause is not meant to be a loophole. “We believe that reducing the percentage from 15% to 10% and making it required will increase the agency’s capacity to cost-share without imposing an undue burden on small institutions and those with limited resources,” she explains. NSF estimates it would eventually receive $1.5 million a year in cost-sharing, shrinking the current premium by some 25% to 30%.

Anxious academics

Tornow says that university administrators and faculty members “were receptive to the changes” when she presented them last month to the Federal Demonstration Partnership, a long-running group that helps identify better ways of managing the federal research enterprise based at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. But Sandra Schneider, the group’s vice-chair, has a slightly different recollection of events.

“There was a lot of anxiety in the room” during the presentation, says Schneider, a psychology professor and former research administrator at the University of South Florida in  Tampa, who has served two stints as an NSF rotator. “Everyone agreed that it’s an awesome program, and a win-win-win situation for the individual, for NSF, and for the institution. So there was a lot of concern about the potential impact of changing something that has been working so well for so long.”

One problem, she says, is that any form of cost-sharing “is the kiss of death” at most institutions, especially public universities already being squeezed by shrinking state support and political pressure to hold down student tuition. “Maybe it would be more palatable if they called it something else,” she says, only half in jest. Some university administrators, she says, don’t realize that returning rotators bring back valuable insights that can help colleagues and the institution navigate the federal funding establishment. That ignorance can make it hard for a would-be rotator to make the case for working at NSF.

The new cap on travel could be an even bigger impediment, she predicts. Faculty members who feel that they need to travel back to campus more often may decide not to apply for a stint at NSF, she says. And university administrators who believe that a 10% cost-sharing requirement means that the institution is entitled to 10% of the faculty member’s time may conclude that a monthly visit doesn’t satisfy that requirement.

Those issues may also be in play for the Association of American Universities, a Washington, D.C.–based coalition of 62 of the top research institutions. “We’re going to study it carefully and consult with our universities to see what impact, if any, they think it will have on their faculty members’ participation in the [rotator] program,” AAU spokesperson Barry Toiv says.

Tornow says that NSF doesn’t want to do anything to weaken the quality of its rotators, and that it will be closely monitoring the pool of candidates in the next year. But she admits it may be difficult to measure the short-term impact of the changes on the 60 or so rotators who arrive each year.

Schneider agrees that it would be very hard to determine how many faculty members decide not to come to NSF because of the new rules, adding that even those who do apply constitute a very small sample of the entire population. So “pushback” from universities and would-be rotators may be the best metric, she says. “I hope that NSF will listen to feedback from the community,” she says, “and consider making whatever adjustments are needed.”