Science and Technology:

National Science Foundation Conflict of Interest Problems With Grants to Short Term Employees

PAD-81-16: Published: Jan 15, 1981. Publicly Released: Jan 15, 1981.

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GAO reviewed the National Science Foundation's (NSF) policies and procedures for precluding conflicts of interest in its grant award process when the Foundation's short term employees are involved. The Foundation augments its permanent professional staff with specialists who serve in noncareer positions for 1 to 2 years. Recruited from colleges, universities, industry, and Government, these specialists are usually appointed as program officers with firstline authority for grant proposal evaluation. They are usually researchers who have been given or could receive Foundation grants.

GAO identified a significant number of problem cases involving these short term rotational employees. The Foundation needs to strengthen its policies and procedures to preclude conflicts of interest. Federal conflict of interest laws prohibit Government employees from acting for the Government in matters in which they have a financial interest. An ad hoc committee, established by the Foundation to resolve a series of conflict of interest questions, recommended that the Foundation's standards be revised to provide for the resolution of potential conflicts of interest involving prospective employees. However, Foundation officials have made decisions on their grant proposals that create an appearance of impropriety under the applicable Federal guidelines and regulations. Questionable activities include instances of officials awarding new grants, renewals, extensions, and supplemental funds to short term employees in the same unit or to researchers who were planning to join that unit; overriding negative peer reviews; and such improprieties as peer reviewing proposals in one researcher's name but awarding the grant to someone else and submitting proposals while still employed at the Foundation. GAO found instances of concurrent grant processing and employment negotiation, questionable grant actions during the employment period, questionable post-employment grant actions, and instances of the use of waivers of the post-employment restriction on submitting new proposals in a questionable manner.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of NSF should take appropriate remedial or disciplinary action when people fail to report conflict of interest situations or otherwise violate prescribed standards of conduct.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of NSF should require that the Office of Audit and Oversight formally refer to the NSF General Counsel for prompt resolution all conflict of interest matters that it finds while monitoring the grant activity associated with scientists who are being considered for, are serving in, or have recently completed short term NSF appointments.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

 

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