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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: Science Committee Hears About Measuring Research

July 10, 1996

On July 10, 1996, the House Science Committee took a look at the perennial problem of measuring the outcomes of scientific research, this time through the prism of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), legislation enacted in 1993 with the aim of tying agency budgets to measures of performance.

Private sector efforts to measure the effectiveness of research were characterized by James McGroddy, Senior Vice President at IBM, as attempting to measure the value added by the research to the sponsoring organization. One of the most difficult problems in managing private sector research is determining when to stop supporting good research and go on to new problems. Dr. Richard Zare, Stanford University (and new Chairman of the National Science Board), concurred that the same difficulty was faced by the NSB in deciding when to phase out funding for successful activities to free up resources in order to take chances on emerging research fields. Dr. Zare also testified that two efforts by the National Research Council to assess research accountability came to the conclusion that quantitative indicators were not likely to be of value in measuring the health or status of a research discipline. Instead, Zare noted, some aspect of qualitative judgment must be a central concern in assessing research.

Dr. Anne Petersen, Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation, led the chorus of the other agency witnesses by noting that the intent of GPRA, to improve agency accountability, was strongly supported within NSF. Although some activities at NSF lend themselves to quantitative measures, such as timely proposal evaluation or the implementation of electronic financial management, the bulk of NSF's mission of supporting basic research and education is much more difficult to quantify on an annual basis. GPRA allows agencies to request that quantitative measures be augmented with qualitative factors, such as expert evaluations of programs. It is this flexibility that is a critical component of allowing GPRA to work in agencies involved in research. Witnesses representing the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NOAA, EPA, and NASA provided an assessment of their agencies' strategic planning and evaluation efforts.

See also: Testimony from Dr. Petersen.