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Public Policy Report for 03/01/2002

  • National Academy's Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy takes first look at Administration's proposed evaluation criteria for basic research
  • House Science subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards hears opposition to proposed move of Sea Grant program to National Science Foundation and proposal to merge the Coastal Ocean Program into Sea Grant

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NATIONAL ACADEMY'S COMMITTEE ON SCIENCE, ENGINEERING and PUBLIC POLICY TAKES FIRST LOOK AT ADMINISTRATION'S PROPOSED EVALUATION CRITERIA FOR BASIC RESEARCH - At a workshop on 27 February, the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Academy of Science had a chance to scrutinize and discuss the criteria proposed by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for the evaluation of all federal basic research programs. The criteria were developed pursuant to the Bush administration's Management Agenda, released last August. That agenda calls for the integration of the budget process and performance reviews, resulting in funding priorities for programs that achieve their objectives. Of course, that means that the programs must be assessed. The Bush administration, represented at the workshop by Science Advisor John Marburger, OMB Chief Mitch Daniels, and Marcus Peacock, the OMB Associate Director for Science, Natural Resources, and the Environment, acknowledged that setting performance standards for basic research is very difficult. In developing the proposed standards, OMB drew from the COSEPUP 1999 report Evaluating Federal Research Programs and the Army Research Laboratory's performance metrics. The resulting proposal, presented to COSEPUP in a discussion draft, calls for all basic research programs to meet all of three criteria: quality, which essentially requires whether the portfolio of projects produces scientific and technical excellence; relevance, which is measured by agency mission, national needs, and the field of study the program intends to address; and performance, which assesses what the administration calls "inputs" - human capital, overhead rates, infrastructure costs - and "outputs" - success in reaching objectives. Each research program would be reviewed prospectively and retrospectively.

After a series of meetings with stakeholders in government, academia, industry, and consultation with Congress, OMB intends to attempt to validate these general criteria against relevant programs at specific agencies; determine how, where, when, and what levels the criteria will be applied; work with agencies to determine how best to implement the criteria within each agency; and provide more detailed guidance to agencies to help them develop more meaningful performance metrics.

For a more detailed analysis of the administration's effort to measurement the return on the government investment in research, look for the Washington Watch column in the May issue of BioScience.


HOUSE SCIENCE SUBCOMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT, TECHNOLOGY, AND STANDARDS HEARS OPPOSITION TO PROPOSED MOVE OF SEA GRANT PROGRAM TO NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION - On 28 February 2002, the House Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards held a hearing regarding the Sea Grant College Program, in order to evaluate the President's fiscal year 2003 Budget proposal to transfer Sea Grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Four of the five highly-distinguished witnesses opposed the Administration's plan to transfer the Sea Grant program from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the National Science Foundation (NSF). While the panel opposed the transfer, they acknowledged the program does have problems with its peer-review process and funding disparities between the states.

Nancy Rabalais (Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium) chairs the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council and was named a 1999 NOAA Environmental Hero for her work on the causes and consequences of Gulf hypoxia; she has also been honored with the 2002 Bostwick H. Ketchum Award for coastal research from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and shares the 1999 Blasker Award for Environmental Science and Engineering with Gene Turner of LSU for similar endeavors. Rabalais spoke in opposition to the proposed transfer, saying that, "each of the National Science Foundation, Coastal Ocean Program, and Sea Grant Program are quality programs from which excellent science is derived to meet the needs of the Nation and marine resource managers but at very different levels. They were developed to address national, regional and state research and information needs for specific purposes that complement each other, and are not duplicative. The fear among the scientific community is that the move of one into another would be the loss of the moved program, and Sea Grant and the Coastal Ocean Program are each important programs in their own right. The biggest mismatch within the above comparison is the Sea Grant College Program and the National Science Foundation. While the entire science community and the academic-based science community, in particular, would like to see the budget of the National Science Foundation increased, movement of a pre-existing program with a specific and very different mission, is not the appropriate mechanism for increasing NSF's budget."

Mary Hope Katsouros, Senior Vice President of The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment and former Executive Director of the Ocean Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) - where she was involved in the preparation of the 1994 NAS report "Review of NOAA National Sea Grant College Program." - testified that Sea Grant should not be moved to NSF for two important reasons. First, she said, "the research is conducted differently in Sea Grant and NSF and therefore the peer review systems for proposals are different. Sea Grant focuses on applied research and is able to turn around research grants more quickly. Also, it is able to tailor its research programs to respond to local, state and regional needs and priorities. Sea Grant is a federal/state partnership that works. Sea Grant provides substantial leverage to the federal investment; for every $1 million in federal funds invested, an additional $600 thousand is contributed by non-federal partners. Sea Grant has designed an improved system of peer review and streamlining."

Katsouras went on to say that, "Second, one of the primary strengths of Sea Grant is its ability to conduct extension activities. By moving Sea Grant to NSF, there is a risk that these vital and effective services will be diminished or lost altogether. These services play an important role in the work done by NOAA and I actually believe that they could have a greater impact if Sea Grant were elevated within the NOAA structure. As a service and community oriented agency, NOAA greatly needs the ability to reach out to the public and practitioners to disseminate its expertise, technology and products. NSF is a different type of agency and could not benefit from nor realize the full potential of such services."

California Sea Grant Director Russell Moll lauded the Sea Grant program, saying that it is an issues- and results-based program, with remarkable achievements throughout its history that represents a terrific value for the investment of federal funds. He noted that its funding rate was similar to those of the NSF Division of Ocean Sciences and that In 1998, the National Sea Grant College Program implemented a rigorous external review process of each of the 30 Sea Grant programs once every four years. This performance review evaluates each Sea Grant program on its management, peer review procedures, strategic planning processes, the significance of results produced, and how results are received and used by stakeholders.

Moll represented the views of the Sea Grant Association (SGA) with regard to the proposed transfer. The SGA recognized that Sea Grant could improve operationally by emulating characteristics of the NSF management but also noted the key factors that make the transfer inappropriate:

- NSF does not have an extensive outreach program in comparison to its research portfolio. A transfer of Sea Grant that would greatly diminish the value of Sea Grant outreach is not in the best interest of the public.

- Similarly, NSF education activities tend to be generic versus the more hands-on, project-specific approach used by Sea Grant. Again, a transfer of Sea Grant to NSF should not come at the cost of reducing the highly regarded Sea Grant activities in coastal, marine and Great Lakes education.

- A move of Sea Grant to NSF could signal the end of the matching funds that has been so effective at building local partnerships.

- There is not a great deal of overlap in the nature of the research supported by each organization.

- A fundamental strength of Sea Grant is its national network. A Sea Grant program based in NSF but distributed among several divisions would seriously undermine the value of the Sea Grant national network.

Furthermore, Moll noted, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, appointed by the President in December 2001, will be issuing major recommendations within 18 months that affect all ocean-related federal agencies, including NOAA, its status as a federal agency, and the placement of its programs, both within and outside of NOAA. Pending that report, SGA opposed any change in the Sea Grant mission, structure, function or location.

Michael Donohue, President of the Great Lakes Commission - an interstate compact agency founded in state and federal law and dedicated to promoting sound public policy on regional issues of environmental protection, resource management, transportation and sustainable development - registered the strong opposition of that organization to the transfer. Donohue shared the view that NSF would be a poor fit for Sea Grant because of the NSF emphasis on basic research in contrast to Sea Grant's decidedly applied research agenda, together with state extension and outreach programs. He also expressed concern about the ability of centralized Sea Grant program based in Washington D.C. to understand and meet the regional and state needs well-served by Sea Grant's primarily state-based structure.

However, NOAA Administrator, Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., defended the Administration's proposal saying, "The Administration believes the program's full potential can best be realized by transferring it to NSF. Under the Administration's proposal, the current Sea Grant structure would be replaced with a university-based coastal and ocean program modeled after the NSF centers, with input from researchers, educators and practitioners, through workshops."

"While most people seem to strongly oppose the transfer and have circled the wagons to defend the program, I believe the President's proposal, along with the reauthorization process, provides us with a great opportunity to more fully examine the goals and purposes of the program," Subcommittee Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) said. "I strongly support the Sea Grant program, and I want to use this opportunity to strengthen the program."

Subcommittee Ranking Member James Barcia (D-MI) added, "I am concerned about the Administration's proposed transfer of the Sea Grant Program to the National Science Foundation. The Sea Grant Program's success is based in the nature of the program -- a partnership between local, state and federal governments. The Administration has not consulted with its partners about this proposed change. This threatens not only the partnership, but the essence of the program."

The subcommittee also considered H.R. 3389, the bill introduced by Wayne Gilchrest (D-MD) that would reauthorize the Sea Grant College Program within NOAA. That bill proposes to incorporate the Coastal Ocean Program (COP), now part of the National Ocean Service, into the Sea Grant College Program. Rabalais said that she and other COP investigators agree that such a move would disrupt valuable research programs. She elaborated, "Moving the programs around could just as likely result in the loss of valuable estuarine and coastal research funds rather than supplementing existing programs. There would likely be the loss of continuity in programs, the loss of skilled managers, and the loss of leveraged funds from other NOAA entities, e.g., additional funds from NOAA NOS (National Ocean Service) support many of the existing programs within COP, such as protection of coral reef ecosystems, identification and prediction of harmful algal blooms, and forecasting the coastal effects of South Florida's Everglades ecosystem restoration. The move of COP would fragment those programs and result in a loss of research funds." She described the differences between Sea Grant and COP, saying, "COP focuses on national research problems, identified through national scientific dialogue, with direct application to the NOAA mission. Sea Grant primarily focuses on state and local research problems with direct application to state and local needs. These state programs argue strongly for autonomy in the way they spend their funds. It would take a change of culture for Sea Grant programs to be fully supportive of focused regional programs that apportion a large amount of money to particular areas of the country. COP's projects focus on problems that are long-term, multidisciplinary, regional and require integration of state-of-the-art research with economic and social sciences to affect resource management. Sea Grant focuses primarily on problems that are short-term, individual investigator-based and topically-oriented." And, she added, "The Coastal Ocean Program is unique among coastal research programs in the integration of states other than coastal states in its research endeavors and eventual use of science-based resource management, for example the work on coastal eutrophication and hypoxia and the involvement of upstream states in the development of policies and plans for managing nutrients within watershed and airsheds that extend far beyond the coastal states affected by changes in nutrient inputs."

Katsouras and Moll stopped short of opposing the merger of the two programs, but also stressed the important differences between the two and urged that any consolidation be done in such a way as to maintain the integrity and benefits of each of the two programs. Lautenbacher voiced the administration's opposition to the merger, saying that,"NOAA is engaged in an agency-wide programmatic review, and the Administration believes it would be premature to undertake any further reorganization until that review is completed."


 


The American Institute of Biological Sciences is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) scientific association headquartered in Washington DC, with a staff of approximately 30. It was founded in 1947 as a part of the National Academy of Sciences and has been an independent organization since the mid-1950s, governed by a Board of Directors elected by its membership. The AIBS membership consists of approximately 6,000 biologists and 80 professional societies and other organizations; the combined individual membership of the latter exceeds 240,000 biologists. AIBS is an umbrella organization for the biological sciences dedicated to promoting an understanding of the natural living world, including the human species and its welfare, by engaging in coalition activities with its members in research, education, public policy, and public outreach; publishing the peer-reviewed journal, BioScience; providing scientific peer review and advisory services to government agencies and other clients; convening scientific meetings; and performing administrative and other support services for its member organizations.


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