Science and Technology:

Better Accountability Procedures Needed in NSF and NIH Research Grant Systems

PAD-81-29: Published: Sep 30, 1981. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 1981.

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GAO assessed the systems used by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to determine which research proposals by colleges, universities, and other nonprofit research institutions are to be funded and how scientific performance on the grants is assessed when continued support is provided. Specifically, GAO focused on the peer review system of the scientific performance accountability system which is used in large measure to determine which research proposals are to be funded and how scientific performance on the grants is assessed when continued support is provided.

Although the scientific performance accountability systems are basically the same at NSF and NIH, the procedures differ significantly. GAO believes that some of the NIH peer review procedures have certain advantages over those at NSF. At NIH, peer review prevented 17 percent of the researchers who sought additional grant funding from continuing their research, and their comments directly affected some of the other continued research. At NSF, none of the researchers who sought continued funding had their requests denied, but comments did eliminate some research objectives and the time requested to do the research was reduced. Unlike NIH, NSF does not ask peer reviewers to comment on the performance of the immediately preceding grant. For new project proposals, neither NSF nor NIH requires researchers to discuss prior grant results or to identify prior grant publications. NIH automatically forwards peer review comments to researchers; whereas, NSF forwards them only on request. NSF, NIH, or the universities do not uniformly monitor the progress or evaluate the results of research grants. Most of the researchers who were awarded renewal grants did not accomplish all of the objectives of the immediately preceding goal, but the researchers were expected to attempt the grant's objectives. Neither NSF nor NIH specifies the extent to which researchers can deviate from a grant's original objectives without prior agency approval.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Director of NSF should require that peer reviewers be asked when reviewing renewal proposals to specifically comment on a researcher's performance on the immediately preceding grant.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

    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 documentation of panel peer review deliberations include the major elements required of the NIH peer review group summary statement when individual peer reviewers' written reviews do not provide this information.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

    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 peer review comments be automatically sent to researchers.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

    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 proposals identify the research objectives to be undertaken during the grant period.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

    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 Directors of NSF and NIH should require that proposals for new projects include evidence of progress from prior grants.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: National Institutes of Health

    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 Directors of NSF and NIH should require that proposals for new projects include evidence of progress from prior grants.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

    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 Directors of NSF and NIH should require that peer reviewers be furnished any available final technical reports and listings of publications from prior grants when researchers seek funding for new projects.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

    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 Directors of NSF and NIH should require that peer reviewers be furnished any available final technical reports and listings of publications from prior grants when researchers seek funding for new projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: National Institutes of Health

    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 Directors of NSF and NIH should require that more systematic and uniform review of annual progress reports be made by the program officers.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NIH adopted a new Progress Report Review Record, dated January 1984, which requires certification of review of progress reports and any actions taken.

    Recommendation: The Directors of NSF and NIH should require that more systematic and uniform review of annual progress reports be made by the program officers.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NSF has considered this recommendation and does not believe that additional certification or paperwork is required or would be useful. In contrast to NIH, NSF does not believe it wise to require any certification. Rather than continue to press a 4-year old recommendation, perhaps future GAO work will assess whether the need still exists.

    Recommendation: The Directors of NSF and NIH should require that more specific guidelines be established regarding the extent to which researchers can change grant objectives without prior agency approval.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: National Institutes of Health

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NIH follows the Public Health Service (PHS) Grants Policy Statement, which specifies that major changes in scope and direction must be submitted to PHS for prior approval. Similar to NSF, NIH officials do not believe that a clear threshold of major change is easily communicated.

    Recommendation: The Director of NSF should require that renewal proposal progress reports identify the objectives; show evidence of the progress toward their achievement; and any major changes in direction or emphasis and rationale for such changes, publications, and other input from a researcher's immediately preceding grant.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

    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 Directors of NSF and NIH should require that more specific guidelines be established regarding the extent to which researchers can change grant objectives without prior agency approval.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: National Institutes of Health

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NSF does not believe that this recommendation is a problem which needs attention. There is no easy way of specifying clearly a threshold, but NSF has not seen any problems arising from the statement as it presently stands.

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