National Science Foundation: Use of Cooperative Agreements to Support Large Scale Investment in Research

December 2015 - The National Science Foundation (NSF) Director and the National Science Board requested that the National Academy of Public Administration (the Academy) review NSF’s use of cooperative agreements (CAs) to support the development, construction, commissioning, and future operations of state-of-the-art, large-scale research facilities. Specifically, the Academy was asked to:

  • Address how CAs are currently used at NSF, examining the effectiveness of NSF’s current CA policy;
  • Compare the CA mechanism with other federal funding mechanisms;
  • Ascertain how comparator scientific agencies manage similarly large, complex research facilities projects; and
  • Identify potential improvements to the NSF’s processes that support large-scale research facilities.

The Academy was asked to focus on NSF’s largest CAs of $100 million or more involving major facility construction projects under the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account and address both issues highlighted in OIG audits and concerns raised during congressional oversight hearings.

The Academy assembled an expert Panel comprising five Fellows and one panel member recommended by NSF, with broad federal, executive leadership, and academic experience and knowledge in financial management, acquisition management, risk management, project management, accountability mechanisms and scientific inquiry, as well as experience or familiarity with NSF and other federal science agencies that promote research. The Academy Panel provided ongoing guidance to a study team of six who carried out the review based on a structured methodology.

Key Findings and Recommendations

NSF is an agency in transition. An exemplar agency in promoting basic research following what is often referred to as the “Gold Standard in Merit Review” for assessing the merits of scientific research, the agency is in the midst of a culture change shifting to a more management-oriented focus in how research projects are administered to add corollary management rigor and ensure proper stewardship of federal funds. The Panel recognized the tremendous efforts NSF has undertaken to improve oversight of large facility projects. The agency’s efforts to improve accountability are a work-in-progress and appear headed in the right direction.

 

Overall, the Academy Panel found that CAs are the appropriate mechanism to support the development of large-scale research facilities. The mechanism is specifically designed to allow for substantial involvement on the part of the federal agency. The critical success factor for these types of projects is the project management discipline—and the rigor of review processes—in place along with the capacity and capability of a skilled workforce to carry out and oversee project management responsibilities. The Panel’s analysis of comparator agencies provides lessons learned and identifies practices that can be adopted by NSF. In addition, the Panel has identified NSF and NSB governance issues—in terms of both structure and practices—and offers a number of suggestions for strengthening agency management practices. The Panel’s recommendations are intended to support NSF’s and NSB’s commitment to improving core business practices and NSF’s key performance goal of ensuring program integrity and responsible stewardship of major research facilities.