NSF Moves to Increase Accountability and Transparency

December 17, 2013

by Paula Skedsvold

Shrinking federal budgets, combined with a "small government" emphasis, have led to calls by the House majority for the government to "prioritize" and for science agencies to be more "transparent" and "accountable."

In this context, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has used his post to press NSF directly (by requesting the scientific and program reviews for individual awards) and indirectly (through proposed legislation that sets criteria for scientific grant awards as well as certification and justification processes at NSF).

Throughout 2013, NSF has juggled how best to stay true to its mission as a basic research agency, ensure that science remains insulated from politics, and yet demonstrate that it is a responsible steward of public funds.

On December 13, Acting Director Dr. Cora Marrett, issued a notice to Presidents of Colleges and Universities stating that the National Science Board and NSF senior leadership have identified opportunities for improvement in two areas: accountability and communication. Dr. Marrett noted that this was part of NSF's periodic reviews to ensure its processes engender trust.

NSF plans to look at its processes to ensure its investments are in the national interest, as defined by NSF's mission. Likewise, NSF will be examining its communications to ensure that investment decisions are clearly articulated to the public. "We believe we can enhance our public communications of what we are funding and why it is important," stated Marrett. New policies and processes may follow.

The notice trails the recent release of a memo indicating that NSF was formalizing their approach for reviewing and selecting awards. Project officers will provide abstracts explaining the significance and justification of projects within the broader portfolio of awards.

For years, a relationship of trust among the Congressional committees overseeing science, NSF, and the scientific community has been fostered. Hopefully, the dialogue this year and the recent actions of NSF will help restore the level of trust that has built the U.S. scientific enterprise.

Read Notice No. 135 from NSF Acting Director Dr. Cora Marrett