Planning and Priority Setting

NSF's success in implementing its core strategies and achieving its goals depends on how well the agency manages its investment portfolio and augments it through effective partnerships with others. Our goal is to ensure an optimum investment of NSF resources in world-class projects across all programmatic areas. All the key program functions use the mechanisms of planning and priority setting, project selection based on merit review by peer evaluation, and performance assessment, which in turn feeds into further program planning.

The Foundation's annual planning cycle provides the means to translate its strategic goals into specific program design and implementation. Beginning in early spring, NSF undertakes a planning process to examine its ongoing activities, and to propose changes to the Foundation's portfolio of programs consistent with the three NSF goals. This process involves the interaction of NSF staff, the National Science Board (NSB), and external advisory contacts, and integrates Administration and Congressional priorities into the Foundation's plans.

NSF's programmatic priorities are influenced by a number of factors: scientific and engineering opportunity and importance, technical feasibility, affordability, and balance with existing programs. These priority-setting factors are assessed in discussions with advisory committees, the NSB, professional societies, the National Research Council, workshops, and task forces such as the blue-ribbon panel on High Performance Computing.

Planning and priority setting occurs not only at an agency-wide level, but also within and across individual disciplines and programs. NSF program officers and management consult widely with the research and education communities on opportunities and challenges in all of NSF's programmatic areas, through workshops, advisory committees, site visits, discussions at professional meetings, reports and conferences. These varied inputs help establish programmatic priorities and guide the decision-making process.

NSF also utilizes its Opportunity Fund (established in FY 1995) to accelerate investment in emerging and innovative areas. In FY 1998, NSF plans to provide $30 million through an Opportunity Fund to pursue exceptionally promising cross-cutting activities. The Opportunity Fund also often provides the means for NSF to respond rapidly to unforeseen opportunities in research and education. In previous years, Foundation-wide priorities such as research on Life in Extreme Environments and Learning and Intelligent Systems were enhanced through this mechanism.

Project Selection and Management

The Foundation's most critical priority setting occurs through the process of merit review by peer evaluation. NSF currently has the resources to fund about one-third, on average, of the proposals submitted to it each year. In this extremely competitive atmosphere, NSF relies on the merit review system in selecting which specific proposals to fund. With the voluntary assistance of expert peers in the science, mathematics, engineering, and education communities, NSF evaluates and selects those proposals which promise to make the most significant contributions. NSF's low proposal selection rates and the high quality of numerous proposals mean leaving many very highly meritorious proposals unfunded. The selection task is complicated by the increasing complexity of proposals, many of which are interdisciplinary in nature, require more complex reviews, or require significant management by NSF program officers. Nevertheless, the merit review process provides the best available advice on priorities within and across programs. NSF program officers, informed by expert peer reviews from their communities, make decisions on the research to be funded, decisions which help set the future course of their fields.

At the project level, NSF tailors the use of peer review in assessing the results of its activities to the nature of the activity. All investigators applying to NSF for continued funding must include a statement of the results of their previous work in their new proposal. These results are taken into consideration in the new funding decision. These proposals for renewed support compete directly with proposals for new projects. For large grants such as for centers, regular site visits are scheduled and rigorous reviews are undertaken at periodic intervals during the course of the award. NSF also recompetes centers and facilities on a scheduled basis. For example, the Engineering Research Centers and some major facilities operation activities were recently recompeted. Engineering Research Centers, in addition to maintaining levels of excellence in their research and operations, had to demonstrate that they would be doing something significantly different from their previous work in order to win renewed support from NSF as a center. Those that could not demonstrate this are now being phased out. Another example of this type of recompetition is the current transition from the Supercomputer Centers program to the new Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure program.

Performance Assessment

NSF makes use of two general kinds of performance assessment. One is the evaluation of NSF's managerial stewardship of public funds. The other is documentation and assessment of the results and effects of the investments we make.

Evaluating NSF's managerial stewardship of public funds focuses on the procedures and decisions of the program staff. For that assessment, NSF relies on Committees of Visitors (COV), panels of external experts convened to review the recent technical and managerial operation of specific NSF programs. COV procedures were first established for FY 1990, refining the long­standing External Peer Oversight system. The COV guidelines were revised in January 1991 to place greater responsibility on NSF's Assistant Directors for establishing topics to be covered in each review, and for addressing issues which surface in COV reports.

Each program that awards grants or cooperative agreements is reviewed on a three-year cycle. Each COV submits a report of its findings; NSF management provides a written response to each COV report. COVs provide a rich source of management information for NSF. Our current plans for responding to the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) will give COVs an expanded role, to address not only the management of the merit review process, but also to assess the performance-the results-of the output of that process.

NSF's active development of performance indicators that tie to the key program functions of Research Project Support, Research Facilities, and Education and Training are supported through the R&RA, EHR, and S&E appropriations. Examples of the kinds of achievements that will be used to assess NSF's performance under GPRA are included in the highlights of each Key Program Function and are described in the following sections.

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