NSF Major Research Equipment and Facilities Management Discussed in House Science Committee Hearing

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Publication date: 
19 March 2012

“The world-class  equipment and facilities that NSF supports are essential to the task of  discovery, and are vital to NSF accomplishing its mission of supporting  fundamental U.S. science and engineering research.” -- Cora Marrett, Deputy  Director of NSF

Ensuring fiscal responsibility and accountability in the  management and operation of National Science Foundation (NSF) Major Research  Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) was the subject of a recent  hearing in the House Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research  and Science Education. 

Witnesses included Marrett, who gave an overview of the  NSF’s large facility process; Jose-Marie Griffiths, Chairman of the  Subcommittee on Facilities of the National Science Board (NSB)and Vice  President of Academic Affairs at Bryant University who described the role of  the NSB; James Yeck, Project Director of IceCube which is an MREFC project associated  with the University of Wisconsin – Madison; Tony Beasley, Chief Operating  Officer and Project Manager of the National Ecological Observatory Network  (NEON), Inc. MREFC Project; and Tim Cowles, Vice President and Director of  Ocean Observing at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership MREFC Project.  

The NSF MREFC account was established to support the  acquisition, construction and commissioning of large-scale facility projects. “NSF requires that each MREFC candidate  project represent an outstanding opportunity to enable breakthrough research  and innovation, as well as education and broader impacts,” described Marrett.   She specified how these facilities span  experimental disciplines, noting that “in  addition to enabling immense scientific return, multi-user facilities serve as  platforms to train the next generation of scientists and engineers, and provide  the high technology equipment and services necessary for economic growth and  innovation.” 

The FY 2013 budget request for MREFC is $196.2 million  which is down $0.89 million or 0.4 percent from FY 2012.  The NSF request in FY2013 will continue  funding for four projects: Advanced LIGO (AdvLIGO), Advanced Technology Solar  Telescope (ATST), Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), and the National  Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).  No additional funding is required  in FY 2013 for Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).  The FYI on the NSF budget request can be read here.

Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) opened the hearing  by expressing his desire to ensure that “appropriate  oversight be executed to guarantee the greatest return on taxpayer investments” while also lending his support to NSF by inquiring what the Subcommittee can do  to “pave a more responsible path for  America’s future by way of supporting these important endeavors.” 

Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) showed his support for  the MREFC projects and inquired about what oversight issues remain following  changes in the MREFC process.  He was pleased with the restoration of funding to MREFC projects in the FY2013  budget request after several years of cuts.  He cited in his written statement a 2003 report by the National Science Board in which the Board recommended that the research infrastructure budget comprise 22-27 percent of the NSF budget.

Marrett described the process for the planning and  construction of these large multi-user facilities in her written testimony and  included the following insight learned by NSF on the recent modifications to  the large facilities process: “Experience  at NSF and across the federal science facility enterprise confirms that  adequate investment in preconstruction planning is essential to achieving a  project’s intended scope within its estimated budget.” 

Marret also noted that “large facility projects often expend two-thirds, or more, of their  total budget as subawards and subcontracts to other parties.  Consequently, it is extremely important that  during planning the project team develop effective plans for subawardee and  subcontract monitoring and oversight, including quality assurance and safety.”

Griffiths provided an overview of the role of the  National Science Board in the facilities management process.  Griffiths stated that the Board conducts an  annual portfolio of facilities projects “where  the objectives of this review are to examine the interrelationships between the  proposed facility development and other activities across the Foundation to  help guide the appropriate balance of investment in infrastructure and  research.  The review also examines the  budgetary consequences, operations costs and future liabilities of further  development, and guides NSF in managing risk and being able to respond to  opportunities.” 

Yeck offered information regarding the IceCube Neutrino  Observatory MREFC project which was completed on time and under budget.  In his statement, he did relay that the  primary strengths of the project were “the  quality of the external review; the close and effective coordination between  NSF’s Office of Polar Programs and the Division of Physics; strong  institutional commitment and engagement by the University of Wisconsin-Madison;  and the international scientific interest and support of the NSF approval  process.” 

As to the weaknesses of the process, Yeck stated that the  researchers faced “the general  environment of uncertainty, the potential for discontinuities in financial  support, and the fact that both NSF and UW-Madison were still maturing in terms  of their large project processes and general capabilities.”

Beasley offered the following suggestion for improvements  to the MREFC process:

“The scale of  scientific research (and therefore the facilities to address the burning  issues) has grown rapidly over the past two decades, and it is increasingly  apparent that large international facilities may be the only way to address the  important scientific issues of tomorrow.   Successfully merging national facility development processes like the  MREFC framework with those used by foreign partners to produce effective  international collaborations has been, and will continue to be, a  challenge.  The Large Facilities Office  has recently spearheaded an effort to improve community understanding of those  challenges and gather input on how to address them; over time, I expect that  the MREFC process will be expanded and refined to include clear interfaces to  international analogs.”

The discussion and question period focused largely on the  decision-making process regarding how projects are deemed ready for  construction and development.  Both the  Chairman and Ranking Member inquired about procedures that occur in the cases  when projects need to be terminated. 

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) inquired as to how  MREFC facilities are maintained and managed post their construction.  Marrett offered assurance that those making  decisions in the early stages of MREFC projects do consider the long-term  operation of the facilities but that funding for the long-term operation of  MREFC facilities comes from different NSF accounts.

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