The Here and Now of NSF and the Results Act
Acting Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy
Evaluating Investments and Performance in Research
The Renaissance Hotel
April 30, 1998
A special thanks to Norine, Steve Nelson, and Al Teich
for putting together this session and giving NSF the
chance to participate.
Before I launch into our primary topic, let me say
a few words about a few more general issues and changes
underway at the Foundation. You can probably imagine
that these are exciting and optimistic times at NSF.
With help from many of you, we are looking at the
possibility of record increases for investments in
research and education. I stress the use of the term
possibility. OSTP's Kerri-Ann Jones spoke to this
yesterday. We should all heed her advice on continuing
to work together as a community on behalf of the President's
There is also a thing or two happening on the personnel
front that I know may interest a few of you. We are
very much looking forward to Rita Colwell's arrival
as Director, once her confirmation by the Senate is
complete. Her long-time relationship with the AAAS
will clearly serve both our organizations very well.
As you might expect, Neal Lane's forthcoming move
to the White House brings mixed emotions to many of
us. He has been super to work with these past five
years. I can't say enough about how his leadership
has strengthened the Foundation and positioned us
to take on new challenges.
One of those quote/unquote "new" challenges is our
topic for this morning's discussion. And, we view
it positively as a challenge. We all know that the
issue of performance measurement for research is continuously
evolving - as we speak in fact - and the GPRA process
is far from complete.
The one thing - and perhaps the only thing - beyond
dispute is that the Results Act, a.k.a. the GPRA,
is for real and in force. That will be the focus of
my remarks - namely the implementation of the Results
Act at the National Science Foundation. That explains
the title I have chosen - The Here and Now of NSF
and the Results Act.
It is appropriate to start with a point of comparison
because the GRPA process bears a striking similarity
to Winston Churchill's legendary advice on public
Overhead 1: Churchill
on public speaking
Churchill said all speeches should have three parts:
- First, tell the audience what you are going to
- Second, say it.
- Third, tell them what you said.
The GPRA process transfers the essence of Churchill's
wisdom to the arena of budgeting and planning.
- Strategic Planning is the prospective first step.
It covers what we intend to do. It represents
a manifestation of our intent.
- Then comes the "just do it" stage, namely actual
budgets and performance plans. These are the plans
of action that guide decisions throughout the
- Finally, we take a retrospective look by crafting
Performance Reports that examine what we actually
There are of course some notable differences between
Churchill's speeches and the GPRA process. For starters,
a good speech usually unfolds over a half-hour or
so. The GPRA process will take some years to unfold.
It can be difficult to hold your audience's attention
for that length of time - especially when your audience's
membership changes periodically.
Furthermore, no amount of Churchillian rhetoric can
compensate for substantive shortcomings when implementing
the GPRA. Success vis-a-vis the GPRA process is not
derived from inspiring language, but rather from documented
results and solid empirical evidence pursued inexorably
With all of this in mind, my aim today is to provide
you with just a snapshot of the here and now of the
GPRA at NSF.
- This snapshot will focus on only one of the five
outcome goals identified in the NSF strategic
plan, and it will pull out key pieces of our FY
1999 budget request and performance plan related
to that particular goal.
- Finally, I will say a few words about how we are
planning to gauge our success at meeting that
If you follow the Foundation, you may have come across
the five outcome goals identified in our GPRA strategic
plan. These five goals are shown on this overhead.
Today, I'll be focusing on the first goal - that of
discovery at and across the frontiers of science and
engineering. You can see that the four other outcome
goals speak to other dimensions of our research and
- It's always part of our job to promote connections
between discoveries and their use in service to
- Our education and training mission comes through
in the third and fourth goals.
- Finally, while our fifth goal is not discussed
much within our community day-by-day, it really
is of more than passing interest to all of us
here today: "Timely, relevant information on the
national and international science and engineering
enterprise." This speaks to all of our data collection
and dissemination efforts, conducted primarily
through our Division of Science Resources Studies.
Without this effort, pursued with great professional
integrity, the development of policies for science
and engineering has no credible base.
Without question, the first of these goals relates
most directly to our topic this morning. It has also
attracted the most concern and apprehension - as is
appropriate for any discussion of performance measurement
in the context of fundamental research activities,
activities based on pursuing the unknown.
Overhead 4: Definition
This next overhead shows how we will measure success
against this goal.
NSF's performance is:
This displays NSF's response to what is known as the
"alternative format" authorized by the GPRA. The law
specifically allows agencies to work with OMB to develop
qualitative descriptions, as opposed to quantitative
targets, in developing certain performance
This cycles back to how we often say that NSF will
not be asking researchers to tell us on what day they
expect to make a major discovery, or when they will
be, for example, 75 percent of the way toward that
I might add that there has been some argument about
the categories "successful" and "minimally effective."
We wanted to use a measurement term such as "excellent"
to exemplify the true intent of NSF's work. The Act
itself, however, specifies the terms to use when employing
the alternative format.
This brings us to step number two in the process:
the plan of action as expressed in our FY1999 budget
request and performance plan. When Neal Lane joined
the Vice President and other agency heads at the White
House to unveil the 1999 budget request, he listed
NSF's priorities as follows:
Overhead 5: Priorities
and Performance Goals
- Advancing science and engineering at and across
- Improving grant size and duration.
- Focusing on key multidisciplinary priorities -
particularly in such areas as Knowledge and Distributed
Intelligence, Life and Earth's Environment, and
Educating for the Future.
Each of these priorities is put into operational terms
by activities identified in our performance plan,
and this chart provides a few examples.
- The balance across our portfolio will be examined
by an independent assessment panel.
- We have adopted a performance goal of increasing
average grant duration from 2.3 years to 2.7 years.
- A number of performance goals speak to our emphasis
on multidisciplinary priorities. Some of these
relate to the specific themes identified in the
budget, while others will examine our support
for emerging opportunities more generally.
Of course, the real test will come during FY 1999,
when we make the investments that lead to the outcomes
we have described.
Now to step 3 - and the part of the GPRA process that
is yet to come. As I said earlier, steps one and two
establish our intent and outline our plan of action.
Still ahead of us is the development of performance
reports that assess and document our progress.
A note on the timing: since our performance plan covers
FY 1999, we will not begin writing our first "official"
performance report until the end of that fiscal year.
It will therefore not be completed until early in
the year 2000 - right around the time we submit our
FY 2001 budget to the Congress.
Overhead 6: Factors
in Assessing Success
It should come as no surprise, however, that we have
already begun thinking about what a performance report
might look like. We know that success for discovery-related
activities can come in many forms - as is illustrated
on this next viewgraph. These are the general frameworks
we are envisioning:
- Topping the list are "Important Discoveries."
Despite what you may read in some circles, these
never seem to run out. We can all recall recent
discoveries that qualify for inclusion in this
- Examples include:
- Bose-Einstein Condensate,
- Planets orbiting distant stars, and
- Advances emerging from plant genome research
- such as isolating the genes that control
flowering and self-fertilization in plants.
- Next are "Contributions to the Knowledge Base."
- These are the puzzle pieces that give
us the ability to move forward across
broad areas. It's the work of countless
unsung heroes and heroines.
- An excellent example of this can be found
in the article from last week's issue
of Science on the connection
between climate and the fate of early
- Tree ring data proved to be the key piece
of the puzzle.
- Another set of important outcomes is related
to "Opening New Directions."
- The emerging field of nano-scale science
and engineering speaks to this.
- It has opened new avenues of exploration
in the physical sciences, the life sciences,
and numerous areas of engineering - linking
them in new ways, which in turn brings
us to the next factor....
- "Linkages Across Areas of Knowledge."
- The emerging field of functional genomics
- which has given us DNA on a chip - is
another prime example of this.
In addition, don't be surprised if you see NSF's performance
report contain a brief discussion of the importance
of failure. There is great value in findings that
reveal dead ends, paths to avoid, and weak spots in
our underlying theories. If every project quote/unquote
"succeeds," it means we are playing it safe. Our performance
plan in fact specifically requires us to examine how
well we cultivate risk-taking in our investments.
Let me offer a few final thoughts in closing.
By necessity, this snapshot has covered just a small
sampling of the here and now of the GPRA at NSF. We
have focused on just one of the five outcome goals.
And, for that one goal, we have glimpsed only a small
fraction of the various investment strategies and
priorities outlined in our budget request and performance
What this snapshot should nevertheless make clear
is that each part of this process requires walking
a tightrope. It's a tightrope that runs between terms
like accountability and independence, planning and
flexibility, and risk and confidence - all of which
must be balanced to attain the highest return on the
Let me leave therefore with the juxtaposition of two
The first is a line from Jack Gibbons about the very
notion of planning in relation to research. It reads:
"The best planning in the world is no substitute for
plain, dumb luck."
The second comes from the writings of Louis Pastuer:
"Chance favors the prepared mind."
This was loosely translated some years back by New
York Yankees manager Joe Torre as "the harder you
work, the luckier you get."
Our experience to date with the GPRA has taught us
that thoughtful planning can enhance, and in no way
hinder, our ability to invest in the most creative
and innovative endeavors in research and education.
For this reason, the here and now of the GPRA at NSF
should leave all of us feeling appropriately optimistic
about what lies ahead.