NSF Changes Guidelines for Informative Titles, Abstracts

France Córdova
France Córdova (Photo: NSF)
Under fire from Republicans in the U.S. Congress for being opaque about how projects are selected for National science Foundation grants, the federal agency is responding by rolling out “new approaches to enhancing transparency and accountability,” including having public abstracts that are a little less, well, abstract.

The methods were spotlighted late last month at a meeting of the National Science Board, which oversees the direction of the NSF. The changes will be incorporated into a revision of the NSF’s Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide coming out on December 26.

A handful of NSF grants have been cited repeatedly by some Republican lawmakers, in particular Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, for essentially squandering public dollars by supporting work that isn’t “in the national interest.” Many of those “unworthy” projects seem to have been singled out due to their titles or abstracts, and not on their likely research output or applications of their findings.

“Unfortunately,” Smith wrote in a November op-ed, “the only information available to the public about NSF grants is a brief summary on the agency’s website written by the researcher, without any explanation as to why such research is worthy of taxpayer funds. Americans deserve more transparency and accountability.”

The NSF’s changes address those stated concerns. As the NSF’s director, France Córdova, explained in a release, “Good stewardship of public resources requires ongoing examination of our processes and continuous improvement. We will continue to convey the significance of our science and engineering research in supporting the national interest. To do this we must clearly communicate our funding rationale publicly.”

This effort includes, according to the NSF, giving program staff new guidelines and training for writing award abstracts and titles and giving principal investigators, or PIs, of submitted research projects a heads up that if their proposal gets funded that being able to explain the project in English will likely be part of the process. The revised guide, for example, notes that “should a proposal be recommended for award, the PI may be contacted by the NSF Program Officer for assistance in preparation of the public award abstract and its title. An NSF award abstract, with its title, is an NSF document that describes the project and justifies the expenditure of Federal funds.”

As it now stands, the title and abstract are the only documents about NSF-funded projects that are routinely publicly available before the findings are published. “It is important to clearly explain through award titles and abstracts how the research in which NSF invests results in new discoveries and innovations, enhanced prosperity, and the preparation of the next generation of scientists and engineers,” the chair of the National Science Board, Dan Arvizu, was quoted.

“I am encouraged by the NSF’s announcement that it will increase transparency and accountability for taxpayer-supported scientific research,” Smith was quoted in a statement. “For more than a year, I have been calling for the NSF to provide public explanations for how NSF research grants are in the national interest and worthy of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. The NSF’s new policy is a step in the right direction. Congress and taxpayers will be eager to see how the new NSF national interest criterion is implemented.”

Ultimately, though, the changes seem unlikely to fully satisfy Smith and company – even though, as an aide told Paul Basken in a detailed article at The Chronicle of Higher Education, that merely ensuring that new grants include a brief description of the project’s value would “immediately change the nature of the dialogue.” Smith’s committee has sought much more than clearer explanations and have been itching to see the peer-review comments that are the major piece of the NSF-funding process; Smith’s Republican staffers have been reviewing the nonpublic portions of 20 grants at NSF’s headquarters, while members of the minority Democratic staff have been watching the reviewers to make sure they don’t leak any private information. Smith has also focused his attention on cutting back NSF’s spending on social, behavioral and economic research, arguing in part that they absorb spending that could otherwise could go toward ‘hard science’ research that he sees as having a clearer economic payoff.

Smith’s Democratic counterpart on the committee, fellow Texan Eddie Bernice Johnson, has been very critical of these fishing expeditions. “The plain truth,” she wrote in a September 30 letter, “is that there are no credible allegations of waste, fraud, or abuse associated with these 20 awards. The only issue with them appears to be that you, personally, think that the grants sound wasteful based on your understanding of their titles and purpose. Seeking to substitute your judgment for the determinations of NSF’s merit review process is the antithesis of the successful principles our nation has relied on to make our research investment decisions.”

Not surprisingly, the academy also sees the issue of poking around and looking for ‘gotchas’ differently.

“As a recipient of public funds for research,” Yale linguistics professor Clare Bowen wrote recently, “I fully agree with Smith that the public has the right to know how their money is being spent. But the most effective way to do that is to engage with researchers and to make it easier for academics to talk about their research with the general public (for example, by making it easier to release results through open access publications). Having staffers dig through NSF files doesn’t make researchers more accountable, nor does it make research more accessible to the public.”

NSF, Córdova said, also has taken steps to reinforce roles and responsibilities of division directors and program officers related to the merit review process. “Good stewardship of public resources,” she said, “requires ongoing examination of our processes and continuous improvement.”

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