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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


The Here and Now of NSF and the Results Act

Acting Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy
Evaluating Investments and Performance in Research
The Renaissance Hotel
Washington, DC

April 30, 1998

A special thanks to Norine, Steve Nelson, and Al Teich for putting together this session and giving NSF the chance to participate.

Before I launch into our primary topic, let me say a few words about a few more general issues and changes underway at the Foundation. You can probably imagine that these are exciting and optimistic times at NSF.

With help from many of you, we are looking at the possibility of record increases for investments in research and education. I stress the use of the term possibility. OSTP's Kerri-Ann Jones spoke to this yesterday. We should all heed her advice on continuing to work together as a community on behalf of the President's proposals.

There is also a thing or two happening on the personnel front that I know may interest a few of you. We are very much looking forward to Rita Colwell's arrival as Director, once her confirmation by the Senate is complete. Her long-time relationship with the AAAS will clearly serve both our organizations very well.

As you might expect, Neal Lane's forthcoming move to the White House brings mixed emotions to many of us. He has been super to work with these past five years. I can't say enough about how his leadership has strengthened the Foundation and positioned us to take on new challenges.

One of those quote/unquote "new" challenges is our topic for this morning's discussion. And, we view it positively as a challenge. We all know that the issue of performance measurement for research is continuously evolving - as we speak in fact - and the GPRA process is far from complete.

The one thing - and perhaps the only thing - beyond dispute is that the Results Act, a.k.a. the GPRA, is for real and in force. That will be the focus of my remarks - namely the implementation of the Results Act at the National Science Foundation. That explains the title I have chosen - The Here and Now of NSF and the Results Act.

It is appropriate to start with a point of comparison because the GRPA process bears a striking similarity to Winston Churchill's legendary advice on public speaking.

Overhead 1: Churchill on public speaking

Churchill said all speeches should have three parts:

  • First, tell the audience what you are going to say.
  • Second, say it.
  • Third, tell them what you said.

The GPRA process transfers the essence of Churchill's wisdom to the arena of budgeting and planning.

Overhead 2: GPRA Process

  • Strategic Planning is the prospective first step. It covers what we intend to do. It represents a manifestation of our intent.
  • Then comes the "just do it" stage, namely actual budgets and performance plans. These are the plans of action that guide decisions throughout the year.
  • Finally, we take a retrospective look by crafting Performance Reports that examine what we actually did.

There are of course some notable differences between Churchill's speeches and the GPRA process. For starters, a good speech usually unfolds over a half-hour or so. The GPRA process will take some years to unfold. It can be difficult to hold your audience's attention for that length of time - especially when your audience's membership changes periodically.

Furthermore, no amount of Churchillian rhetoric can compensate for substantive shortcomings when implementing the GPRA. Success vis-a-vis the GPRA process is not derived from inspiring language, but rather from documented results and solid empirical evidence pursued inexorably day-by-day.

With all of this in mind, my aim today is to provide you with just a snapshot of the here and now of the GPRA at NSF.

  • This snapshot will focus on only one of the five outcome goals identified in the NSF strategic plan, and it will pull out key pieces of our FY 1999 budget request and performance plan related to that particular goal.
  • Finally, I will say a few words about how we are planning to gauge our success at meeting that goal.

Overhead 3: Outcome Goals

If you follow the Foundation, you may have come across the five outcome goals identified in our GPRA strategic plan. These five goals are shown on this overhead. Today, I'll be focusing on the first goal - that of discovery at and across the frontiers of science and engineering. You can see that the four other outcome goals speak to other dimensions of our research and education mission.

  • It's always part of our job to promote connections between discoveries and their use in service to society.
  • Our education and training mission comes through in the third and fourth goals.
  • Finally, while our fifth goal is not discussed much within our community day-by-day, it really is of more than passing interest to all of us here today: "Timely, relevant information on the national and international science and engineering enterprise." This speaks to all of our data collection and dissemination efforts, conducted primarily through our Division of Science Resources Studies. Without this effort, pursued with great professional integrity, the development of policies for science and engineering has no credible base.

Without question, the first of these goals relates most directly to our topic this morning. It has also attracted the most concern and apprehension - as is appropriate for any discussion of performance measurement in the context of fundamental research activities, activities based on pursuing the unknown.

Overhead 4: Definition of Success

This next overhead shows how we will measure success against this goal.

NSF's performance is:

  • Successful when NSF awards lead to important discoveries; new knowledge and techniques, both expected and unexpected, within and across traditional disciplinary boundaries; and high-potential links across these boundaries;
  • Minimally effective when there is a steady stream of outputs of good scientific quality.

This displays NSF's response to what is known as the "alternative format" authorized by the GPRA. The law specifically allows agencies to work with OMB to develop qualitative descriptions, as opposed to quantitative targets, in developing certain performance goals.

This cycles back to how we often say that NSF will not be asking researchers to tell us on what day they expect to make a major discovery, or when they will be, for example, 75 percent of the way toward that discovery.

I might add that there has been some argument about the categories "successful" and "minimally effective." We wanted to use a measurement term such as "excellent" to exemplify the true intent of NSF's work. The Act itself, however, specifies the terms to use when employing the alternative format.

This brings us to step number two in the process: the plan of action as expressed in our FY1999 budget request and performance plan. When Neal Lane joined the Vice President and other agency heads at the White House to unveil the 1999 budget request, he listed NSF's priorities as follows:

Overhead 5: Priorities and Performance Goals

  1. Advancing science and engineering at and across the frontiers.
  2. Improving grant size and duration.
  3. Focusing on key multidisciplinary priorities - particularly in such areas as Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence, Life and Earth's Environment, and Educating for the Future.

Each of these priorities is put into operational terms by activities identified in our performance plan, and this chart provides a few examples.

  • The balance across our portfolio will be examined by an independent assessment panel.
  • We have adopted a performance goal of increasing average grant duration from 2.3 years to 2.7 years.
  • A number of performance goals speak to our emphasis on multidisciplinary priorities. Some of these relate to the specific themes identified in the budget, while others will examine our support for emerging opportunities more generally.

Of course, the real test will come during FY 1999, when we make the investments that lead to the outcomes we have described.

Now to step 3 - and the part of the GPRA process that is yet to come. As I said earlier, steps one and two establish our intent and outline our plan of action. Still ahead of us is the development of performance reports that assess and document our progress.

A note on the timing: since our performance plan covers FY 1999, we will not begin writing our first "official" performance report until the end of that fiscal year. It will therefore not be completed until early in the year 2000 - right around the time we submit our FY 2001 budget to the Congress.

Overhead 6: Factors in Assessing Success

It should come as no surprise, however, that we have already begun thinking about what a performance report might look like. We know that success for discovery-related activities can come in many forms - as is illustrated on this next viewgraph. These are the general frameworks we are envisioning:

  • Topping the list are "Important Discoveries." Despite what you may read in some circles, these never seem to run out. We can all recall recent discoveries that qualify for inclusion in this category.
  • Examples include:
    • Bose-Einstein Condensate,
    • Planets orbiting distant stars, and
    • Advances emerging from plant genome research - such as isolating the genes that control flowering and self-fertilization in plants.
  • Next are "Contributions to the Knowledge Base."
    • These are the puzzle pieces that give us the ability to move forward across broad areas. It's the work of countless unsung heroes and heroines.
    • An excellent example of this can be found in the article from last week's issue of Science on the connection between climate and the fate of early colonial settlements.
    • Tree ring data proved to be the key piece of the puzzle.
  • Another set of important outcomes is related to "Opening New Directions."
    • The emerging field of nano-scale science and engineering speaks to this.
    • It has opened new avenues of exploration in the physical sciences, the life sciences, and numerous areas of engineering - linking them in new ways, which in turn brings us to the next factor....
  • "Linkages Across Areas of Knowledge."
    • The emerging field of functional genomics - which has given us DNA on a chip - is another prime example of this.

In addition, don't be surprised if you see NSF's performance report contain a brief discussion of the importance of failure. There is great value in findings that reveal dead ends, paths to avoid, and weak spots in our underlying theories. If every project quote/unquote "succeeds," it means we are playing it safe. Our performance plan in fact specifically requires us to examine how well we cultivate risk-taking in our investments.

Let me offer a few final thoughts in closing.

By necessity, this snapshot has covered just a small sampling of the here and now of the GPRA at NSF. We have focused on just one of the five outcome goals. And, for that one goal, we have glimpsed only a small fraction of the various investment strategies and priorities outlined in our budget request and performance plan.

What this snapshot should nevertheless make clear is that each part of this process requires walking a tightrope. It's a tightrope that runs between terms like accountability and independence, planning and flexibility, and risk and confidence - all of which must be balanced to attain the highest return on the taxpayer's investment.

Overhead 7: Closing Quotes

Let me leave therefore with the juxtaposition of two quotes:

The first is a line from Jack Gibbons about the very notion of planning in relation to research. It reads:

"The best planning in the world is no substitute for plain, dumb luck."

The second comes from the writings of Louis Pastuer:

"Chance favors the prepared mind."

This was loosely translated some years back by New York Yankees manager Joe Torre as "the harder you work, the luckier you get."

Our experience to date with the GPRA has taught us that thoughtful planning can enhance, and in no way hinder, our ability to invest in the most creative and innovative endeavors in research and education. For this reason, the here and now of the GPRA at NSF should leave all of us feeling appropriately optimistic about what lies ahead.



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