GEO Facilities Plan

1.0 Introduction

1.1 Context

The mission of the Directorate for Geosciences (GEO) of the National Science Foundation (NSF) is to advance scientific knowledge about the solid Earth, freshwater, ocean, atmosphere, and geospace components of the integrated Earth system through support of high-quality research; through sustenance and enhancement of scientific capabilities; and through improved geoscience education (GEO Science Plan, 1998).

To fulfill its mission, GEO strives to attain three goals:  

  • advance fundamental knowledge about the Earth system;
  • enhance the infrastructure used to conduct geoscience research; and
  • improve the quality of geoscience education and training.

his document describes GEO's plan to achieve the second of these three goals over the next five years, and complements the GEO Science Plan, FY 1998-2002 (NSF 97-118).

1.2 Facilities in the Geosciences

Basic research in the geosciences uses a vast range of capabilities and instrumentation, including large observation platforms (e.g., research vessels, planes), ground-based observatories, supercomputing capabilities, real-time data systems, and laboratory experimental and analysis instruments.

Facilities in the Geosciences are systems that serve the experimental, analytical, observational, or computational needs of extended user communities.

In this context, "systems" includes not only hard ware and instrumentation, but also, in some cases, necessary technical and operational support. "Extended user communities" refers to users outside of the facilities' immediate location or campus, and generally refers to regional centers at a minimum, but frequently to operations that serve national or international communities. It is the role and function of a particular system in the community that determines whether or not we call it a facility, not the mode of financial support or the management structure. Modes of support and management are highly variable across the different programs within GEO, because modes of operation of the different facilities vary substantially. Support and management approaches are tailored optimally to the characteristics and needs of each facility. In all cases, management practices require responsible maintenance programs, and encourage the continuous development of plans for system upgrades to insure capabilities are `state-of-the-art.'

The importance of instrumentation systems and facilities maintained by individual investigators for their own use is recognized, but is not the subject of this document. Individual investigator experimental and data acquisition capabilities are essential to a healthy and innovative basic research activity, but as previously stated, this plan is concerned only with those systems that serve the needs of extended user communities.

Decisions concerning the development and continued operation of facilities are made by GEO management only after considerable consultation with the scientific community. Throughout this document, the superscripts reference key workshop and planning documents that have played important roles in GEO deliberations. While it is impossible to provide a completely exhaustive list of these references, the examples used are intended to illustrate the extent of the community-based discussion and deliberation process that precedes any significant decision by GEO management concerning the support of facilities.

1.3 Characteristics of Facilities

All facilities supported by GEO should have the following seven characteristics:

  • Their characteristics and capabilities should be driven by the basic research supported by NSF programs.
  • They should perform at the cutting edge of their respective research topics and demonstrate the capacity to evolve and continuously improve their services and capabilities.
  • They should be managed in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible, and where appropriate, foster and encourage competition between various centers.
  • Their characteristics and capabilities should be well publicized in appropriate ways, and guidelines for gaining access to the facility must be readily and widely available. In general, access to the capabilities of the facility should be as open as is reasonable and practical to appropriate members of the U.S. academic community.
  • The data produced by GEO facilities should be made openly available to the national and international scientific communities in a timely way, protecting the interests of the principal investigator, but strongly supporting the concept of free and open access to scientific data.
  • They should form, where possible, partnerships with operating institutions, private foundations, states, industry, other federal agencies, and also with other nations.
  • They should, when possible, play important roles in education at many different levels - opportunities should be recognized and programs established to reap the maximum benefit.

In making choices about the distribution of resources, GEO managers must maintain an appropriate balance between development of innovative capabilities and the support and maintenance of important, but routine measurement systems. Decisions concerning both the development of new facilities and whether or not to continue support of existing capabilities should be driven by the needs of the research programs. These requirements are outlined in the GEO Science Plan FY 1998-2002 (NSF 97-118), updated every two years, reviewed by the Advisory Committee for Geosciences, and based upon broad input from community-based workshops and planning documents.

The structure of funding mechanisms is designed to ensure support is provided only to those facilities for which appropriate demand exists from NSF-supported investigators. When usage falls below critical levels so that operation is no longer cost-effective, the facility is restructured or phased-out, in consultation with the community.

1.4 Competition and Recompetition

Recommendations in the recent National Science Board (NSB) resolution (NSB-97-224) on "Competition, Recompetition, and Renewal of NSF Awards" will be followed. The NSB supports the principle that expiring awards are to be recompeted unless it is judged to be in the best interest of U.S. science and engineering not to do so. This position is based on the conviction that peer-reviewed competition and recompetition is the process most likely to assure the best use of NSF funds for supporting research and education. It is essential that NSF determine periodically whether a particular facility still represents the best use of NSF funds, however, because of the complexity of major facility awards there is no single procedure for their review.

1.5 GEO Facilities and the Government Performance and Results Act

GEO recognizes the special importance of achieving the four primary performance goals on Facilities Oversight included in NSF's Performance Plan:

  • Keep construction and upgrades within annual expenditure plan, not to exceed 110 percent of estimates.
  • Keep construction and upgrades within annual schedule, total time required for major components of the project not to exceed 110 percent of estimates.
  • Keep total cost within 110 percent of estimates made at the initiation of construction.
  • Keep operating time lost due to unscheduled downtime to less than 10 percent of the total scheduled possible operating time.

These performance goals will not stifle risk-taking and innovation in the development of new facilities, but will impose planning strategies designed to recognize important uncertainties in development costs and duration, and will require management approaches capable of responding effectively to these uncertainties.

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