Better Communication Could Help Clear Up Confusion Over 'Silly' Research Grants

PAD-80-46: Published: Feb 7, 1980. Publicly Released: Feb 7, 1980.

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A Congressional Subcommittee asked GAO to obtain information on social science research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to find out whether NSF is awarding "silly grants" and whether the grants are duplicating other research funded by NSF or other agencies. NSF relies heavily on its peer review system as the main procedure which is intended to ensure that quality social science research is funded and that duplication does not occur, although NSF has other procedures as well. External oversight advisory committees of scientists periodically review the social science programs.

The problem in the NSF grant award process appears to be inadequate explanations in, and/or improper use of, the documents NSF prepares for explaining to the Congress and the public why individual social science projects are supported and what benefits will be, or were received, as a result of supporting these projects. Also, some confusion apparently exists among NSF officials regarding the intended use of the documents that are supposed to explain why the projects are funded. The inadequate explanations in, and improper use of, the documents appear to cause the criticisms of some projects. It was also found that while individual social science grants are sometimes criticized as "silly" based on their titles alone, NSF officials believe such criticisms might continue because it is difficult to identify those grants that will sound "silly" to anyone who might read only the grant title.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Director of NSF should take the following actions to improve the communication of the reasons for funding individual social science grants: (1) require the Program Award Recommendation for every social science grant to contain, in addition to existing requirements, a clear and simple explanation of why the project is important, and what long-term intellectual and economic benefits may be obtained; (2) require the Summaries of Completed Projects to include, in addition to existing requirements, a statement of the meaning of the research findings for broader social and human concerns, and a list of publications that resulted from the research; and (3) clear up the confusion about the purposes of the Project Summary, the Program Award Recommendation, and the Summary of Completed Project.

    Agency Affected:


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