News Release

New report recommends a more flexible NSF major research equipment account

National Science Board report responds to congressional request

Study of
Operations and Maintenance Costs for NSF Facilities report cover

O&M report cover (Credit and Larger Version)

June 6, 2018

As the National Science Foundation (NSF) nears its 70th anniversary, the balance between funding researchers and building, operating, and maintaining cutting-edge science facilities is a prevailing concern. Ongoing budget constraints and rising operations and maintenance costs add to this challenge. The U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations directed NSF’s governing body, the National Science Board (NSB, Board) to examine the issue.

Today, NSB publicly released its report, “Study of Operations and Maintenance Costs for NSF Facilities.”

A key take-away from the report is that multiple factors drive grant success rates; the tendency to reduce it to a simple choice between Operation and Maintenance (O&M) costs and grants is misleading.

“One of the surprises in our work was seeing that O&M outlays are not a huge driver of lower grant success rates,” said Peter Lepage, who led the Board’s report as Chair of its Committee on Awards and Facilities.

“The time is right for NSF and NSB to consider how our strategic planning and budget mechanisms can evolve to reflect NSF’s mature facilities portfolio,” said NSB Chair Diane Souvaine. “We face challenges that include bigger investments for state-of-the-art facilities, stewardship of facilities that rely on interagency and international partnerships, and divestment of facilities.”

The report makes three recommendations:

  • NSB and the NSF Director should enhance agency-level ownership of the facility portfolio to elevate strategic and budgetary decisions and the agency’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account (MREFC) should allow for greater flexibility. 
  • NSF and NSB should reexamine what share of the agency’s budget should be devoted to research infrastructure.
  • NSB and NSF should develop model funding and governance schemes for the next generation of partnerships at the agency, interagency, and international levels.

Between Fiscal Year (FY) 2002 and FY 2017, NSF’s budget grew, in real terms, an average of 1.1 percent per year while the number of proposals submitted to the agency grew by over 40 percent. This contributed to a decline in success rates across NSF from 29 percent in FY 2002 to 23 percent in FY 2017. At the agency level, O&M outlays grew 3 percent while NSF budgets grew 18 percent over this period.

“Proposal pressure is the single largest contributing factor to the agency-wide decline in grant success rates,” said Lepage. “However, it is not the only factor.”

NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research, Graduate Research Fellowship Program, and Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research programs accounted for over $650 million of the agency’s budget in FY 2017, a $300 million increase since FY 2002.

While O&M growth is not the main driver of declining success rates agency-wide, it is a major factor in facility-heavy NSF divisions such as the Astronomical Sciences.

According to the report, over the past 15-20 years, NSF invested 23.5 percent of its annual budget in research infrastructure--large facilities, midscale, and major research instruments. This is on the low end of the 22-27 percent range recommended by NSB in its 2003 report. The prospect of committing to the future O&M costs that come with new large projects may be discouraging directorates and divisions from embarking on them.

“NSF can’t abandon its large facility pedigree if it wishes to remain a world leader in fundamental research,” said Lepage. “Our recommendation for a flexible MREFC account aims to help divisions afford to develop and build large facilities while maintaining a robust grant program.”

The report is available here.

Please contact NSB Communications Director Nadine Lymn at (703) 292-2490 or for more information.


About the National Science Board

The NSB and NSF’s Director jointly head the agency. The Board identifies issues critical to NSF's future and establishes its policies. The NSB also provides the President and Congress with Science and Engineering Indicators, a biennial report on U.S. progress in science and technology. Members are appointed by the President for six-year terms and are selected for their eminence in research, education and records of distinguished service.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, its budget is $8.1 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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