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NSF cost-sharing pilot stirs debate

The National Science Foundation (NSF) got some pushback today on its plan to require universities to pay 10% of the salaries of faculty members working temporarily at the agency.

The negative feedback came from NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board, whose executive committee last month gave NSF officials a green light to test the policy over the next 12 months with a new crop of so-called rotators. Board member Arthur Bienenstock of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, said the cost sharing could make it harder for NSF to attract talented scientists if universities feel financially squeezed by the requirement. The current NSF policy encourages institutions to pay up to 15% of the faculty member’s salary who is on leave. But NSF collects an average of only 5%, and many universities pay nothing.

“I’m concerned about the pilot,” said Bienenstock during a session of the board’s Committee on Audit and Oversight. “I think it’s likely to hurt the [quality of the] applicant pool.”

Bienenstock proposed that NSF delay its pilot until it has completed its overview of all agency staffing practices, an exercise due to be finished by the end of the year. But other board members said they saw no reason to wait.

“The current policy is not workable,” said John Anderson, past president of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, who chairs the audit committee. “I think 10% is very reasonable, and I see no problem implementing it now. As a former university president, I can’t believe that I would deny a request from someone to go to NSF.”

Several board members also noted the value to a university of having a returning faculty member share with colleagues their knowledge of the workings of NSF and the federal government. “They are being cherry picked by other universities because of their added knowledge,” noted one member about academics who participate in the IPA program, whose name stems from a 1970 law called the Intergovernmental Personnel Act.

NSF’s Joanne Tornow in Arlington, Virginia, who chairs the internal steering committee that is reviewing the program, noted that many universities will actually save money under the new arrangement. “There are 110 institutions who sent IPAs to NSF in 2016, and 42 of them will pay less under the pilot,” she told the board. “And about two-thirds of them are public institutions,” she added, responding to a comment about the large budget cuts in recent years to flagship state universities.

NSF expects the pilot to affect 50 to 60 rotators over the next year. In 2016 NSF hosted 177 IPAs, 29 in senior management positions and 148 working as program officers, at a total cost of $49 million.