Foundation urged to track more grants

The National Science Foundation is a large sponsor for research at the University.

by Cati Vanden Breul

The National Science Foundation could do a better job of evaluating the progress of the projects it funds, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week.

According to an audit conducted by the foundation’s inspector general, during the past five years, 47 percent of grant recipients turned final and annual reports in late or not at all.

A separate audit reported that the foundation sent investigators to only 35 of the approximately 2,000 institutions that received grants last year.

The audit, conducted by accounting firm KPMG, encouraged the foundation to devote more resources to visiting grant sites.

The foundation funds scientific and engineering research with grants from the federal government.

During the 2003-04 school year, the University received $64.1 million from the foundation, which funded 325 grants on all campuses.

The foundation is the second-largest sponsor of University research, following the National Institutes of Health, said Ed Wink, University associate vice president for Sponsored Projects Administration.

“(The National Science Foundation) is an excellent organization to work with,” Wink said.

Wink said the findings of the audit were important, but they must be taken “with a grain of salt.”

He said he thinks the foundation “probably need(s) to spend more time” doing site visits.

The foundation should pay attention to the findings, Wink said.

“It’s taxpayer money, after all,” he said.

University ecology professor David Tilman said he does not see the audit results as significant.

“My frank response is that both of these are very minor problems,” Tilman said.

Tilman, who received his first National Science Foundation grant in 1976 and has been funded ever since, said visiting each grant site would be an unnecessary waste of time and money for the foundation.

Before the foundation gives out a grant, each proposal is intensely reviewed, and only the best candidates receive funding, he said.

“It takes a long time to write a grant, and the odds of success are low,” Tilman said.

The foundation has relatively few staff members, many of whom are volunteers. It does not have the resources to visit each site, he said.

Although the inspector general found that approximately half of the foundation’s final and annual reports were turned in late or not at all, Tilman said the problem is merely technical.

Submitting a report is a timely process that takes two to four days – time that many researchers might not have, Tilman said.

“If they’re not writing a report, they’re probably writing a paper that’s a lot more important,” he said. “The real purpose is getting science done.”

Economics professor Larry Jones said grant recipients are often not given reminders.

“Places that don’t get reminders probably aren’t going to get them in on time,” he said.

The University makes sure progress reports are sent to the foundation, Wink said.

“We have an individual in our office who checks to see if there are any delinquent reports. If they are late, we send out an e-mail,” he said.

The foundation is taking the recommendations of the audits seriously, National Science Foundation media spokesman Bill Noxon wrote in an e-mail.

He said the foundation will increase on-site visits. In addition, he said, the foundation is going to apply more pressure to institutions that continually turn in late reports.