Senators chastise NSF over management practices

Citing a recent inspector general's report of mismanagement at the National Science Foundation, a key member of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday threatened to cut funding for the agency if the problems are not corrected.

"NSF has taken some important steps, such as developing a management and oversight plan, but more needs to be done and done quickly," said Missouri Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond, the ranking Republican on the Veterans' Affairs and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees NSF funding. "I have seen how mismanagement often leaves agencies open to budget cuts, and NSF is not immune."

Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, chairwoman of the committee, voiced a similar view.

The audit of NSF's funding and management of major research equipment and facilities, released on May 1, found in particular that the lack of adequate guidance has "allowed NSF to use multiple appropriation accounts to fund the acquisition and construction costs of major research equipment and facilities, and led to inconsistencies in the types of costs funded through the account [for major research equipment]."

Bond said that, "unbeknownst to the [National] Science Board and the Congress, NSF practices have resulted in significant cost overruns and the cannibalization of funds from other worthy research proposals." For instance, the report found that NSF's contribution to the so-called Large Hadron Collidor project would exceed its budgeted amount by $59 million, or 73 percent.

"The [inspector general's] report has confirmed my fears that there is little oversight of NSF's large facilities," Bond continued. "It appears that once the money is out, very little follow-up occurs."

NSF Director Rita Colwell acknowledged the validity of the report's findings but defended the agency's efforts to correct the situation. "NSF needs continual improvement of financial management," Colwell said. "The inspector general's recommendations are sound." But some, such as internal controls, already are being implemented, and a full agency response to the report will be released by June 15, she said.

John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, rejected the long-held notion of Mikulski and Bond that funding for the physical sciences, as embodied in the NSF budget, needs to double to mirror the funding track of the National Institutes of Health. Rather than fixing on "arbitrary formulas of doubling or tripling," appropriators should fund on the basis of priorities, he said.

Mikulski and Bond also questioned the slight budget increase for NSF and, by extension, basic science that the Bush administration has proposed for fiscal 2003. "You're going from Spartan to--I'm afraid they're on the verge of skimpy," Mikulski said.

The administration proposed a 5 percent increase for NSF, but after subtracting funds for the transfer of three existing programs from other agencies, it would be about 3 percent. "To me, [the transfer] is the illusion of creating an increase," Mikulski said. "You're simply moving projects from one place to another."

Colwell repeated that the transfer of the programs is not her highest priority.

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