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NSF & Congress


Dr. Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
National Science Foundation

Before the House Science Committee
July 30, 1997

Mr. Chairman, Representative Brown, members of the Committee, it is a great pleasure for me to join you today to discuss the National Science Foundation's approach to the Government Performance and Results Act. As you know, this hearing comes at a crucial time in the implementation of the Results Act. Many of the most important milestones spelled out in the act are fast approaching. Full implementation of the GPRA in fact begins with the development of agency budget requests for FY 1999.

NSF has always viewed implementation of GPRA as an opportunity to strengthen our strategic planning process and link it to budget formulation. As many have noted, this opportunity has proven to be a challenging one, but we have found that the Results Act provides a valuable tool for shaping our programs and continuing to improve the already high returns on public investments in science and engineering research and education.

NSF began addressing the performance and accountability issues raised by GPRA in 1994, and this work has already led to a number of important changes in our general approach to budgeting and priority setting.

  • First, instead of viewing our budget as dollars spread out over seven directorates and scores of program offices and divisions, we are now approaching it as a portfolio of investments in four key program functions that work to achieve specific outcomes.
  • Second, we have recognized that the integrative nature of NSF's investments in research and education sets us apart from other agencies with research and development missions. While several agencies support research and/or education, NSF alone supports both across all of science and engineering and at all levels of education.
  • Third, we have refined our approach to better gauge the effectiveness of both our programs and our internal processes. Put simply, we are seeking to ensure that our investments represent both "money well spent" and "money spent well."
    We are now approaching the conclusion of what could be called "preseason" in terms of the GPRA process. We have learned from pilot projects, tested different approaches, and continuously refined the various planning documents required by the Results Act. The comments we expect to receive in coming days from the Congress and other stakeholders will allow us to apply finishing touches to our draft strategic plan. We will then turn our attention in full to developing the performance plan that will accompany our FY 1999 budget.

As often occurs during any type of preseason, the most valuable lesson we learned was the importance of staying focused on "the fundamentals." For NSF, this has meant clarifying the linkage between our statutory mission and the outcomes generated by our investment decisions.

The NSF Act of 1950 (as amended) establishes the Foundation's mission - "to promote the progress of science" - and sets forth the agency's role in supporting science and engineering research as well as education at all levels in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. The outcomes identified in our planning documents represent tangible realizations of this broad mission:

  • Discoveries at and across the frontier of science and engineering.
  • Vital connections between discoveries and their use in service to society.
  • A diverse, productive, globally-oriented workforce of scientists and engineers.
  • Improved achievement in the essential mathematics and science skills needed by all Americans.

These four outcomes now guide the development of NSF's investment priorities. For example, NSF's commitment to raising achievement in mathematics and science is borne out by our investments in systemic reform: we now support 59 systemic initiatives in 38 states that reach 56,000 teachers serving 7.7 million students in nearly 13,000 schools. Similarly, to enable discovery, we are bringing a number of path-breaking facilities on-line over the next five years. One highlight among these investments is LIGO - The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. Gravitational waves have eluded detection since they were first predicted by Albert Einstein, and their discovery would open a new window on the universe that would advance research and education across all of science and engineering.

The most informative -- and the most challenging -- component of the Results Act framework will likely be gauging progress toward our four outcomes goals. As the GAO's March 1997 report, Measuring Performance: Strengths and Limitations of Research Indicators, stressed, "the very nature of the innovative process makes measuring the performance of science-related projects difficult."

For this reason, NSF intends to employ a variety of mechanisms to assess program performance. Certain activities lend themselves readily to close monitoring of observable indicators and milestones. Investments in high speed networking are one such example: we can track key parameters like networking speeds, connections, and reliability, and we can also review the scientific gains resulting from these enhanced capabilities (i.e. increased reliability in weather forecasting models or improved resolution in real-time medical imaging systems).

The majority of NSF's resources, however, support individual investigator and small group activities that require more qualitative approaches to assessment and evaluation. For these types of activities, we expect to employ an approach that focuses on both results and process: experts and stakeholders will conduct retrospective assessments of program results, and we will also conduct prospective reviews of our resource allocation processes. This dual process/results approach will allow us to demonstrate and document the return on NSF's total investment portfolio - without sending onerous signals that would likely stifle creativity and innovation in the research and education community.

Key data for these evaluations will come directly from the researchers and educators engaged in NSF-supported activities. We are consolidating several existing reports and establishing an automated information gathering process for grantees (via the Fastlane system). The research and education community has provided especially valuable guidance on this matter, as it was a primary focal point for comments at both of the public meetings we held earlier this month.

These comments reinforced our determination to address the potential for burdensome and possibly duplicative reporting requirements across the different Federal agencies that support research and education. The National Science and Technology Council has discussed this issue, and we expect coordination of measures among Federal agencies will be addressed as implementation of the Results Act continues.

In closing, we recognize that the conclusion of this preliminary stage of the process does not mean the end of practice and experimentation. We are all new to the Results Act framework, and the steepest parts of the learning curve may yet lie ahead of us. Meeting the challenges presented by the Results Act will undoubtedly require continued experimentation with different approaches.

We fully expect -- indeed we hope -- that this remains a collaborative process. The insights and guidance provided to date by this committee and other Congressional bodies have greatly improved both the structure and the substance of our GPRA plan. We look forward to continuing this productive exchange of ideas as we collectively work through this first season of governance under the Results Act.

See also: Hearing Summary.