Environmental Research:

STAR Grants Focus on Agency Priorities, but Management Enhancements Are Possible

RCED-00-170: Published: Sep 11, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 11, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants program, focusing on: (1) whether funding amounts awarded for the grants align with EPA's strategic goals, EPA's Office of Research and Development's (ORD) research priorities, and program office priorities; (2) the extent to which the completed focused grants have provided research that is being used by EPA's program offices; and (3) ways in which ORD could enhance its management of the program to help ensure that it meets its objectives.

GAO noted that: (1) STAR grant funding has generally been aligned with EPA's ORD's, and the program offices' broadly defined priorities; (2) since the STAR program began in 1995 through March 2000, about two-thirds of the approximately $415 million in funding for STAR grants has addressed EPA's multipurpose strategic goal of ensuring that EPA uses sound science in addressing environmental hazards and improving environmental protection; (3) although STAR grants were generally aligned with the agency's strategic priorities and those of ORD and the program offices, EPA's program officials varied in the extent to which they believe the grants' results are useful to them; (4) according to the officials, the grants varied in their usefulness to the program offices largely because the STAR program's goals--meeting program office needs specifically and advancing environmental science generally--may be in conflict; (5) ORD has not consistently tracked the STAR grants to ensure that they are completed on time and that the results are available for use by EPA's program office; (6) according to several program officials, ORD could improve its communication with the program offices during the grant process; (7) ORD has not consistently obtained information from cognizant program officials when designing the requests for grant applications or reviewing grant proposals for relevancy during the grant selection process, nor has ORD adequately communicated the results of the completed grants; (8) ORD recognizes these concerns and has several initiatives under way; (9) these include establishing a Web site to improve communication and involving more program officials in grant application design and review; (10) because the STAR program is relatively new, ORD's primary focus has been on establishing a framework and processes for the program and not on setting program criteria to measure its overall effectiveness; and (11) recent reports by two independent scientific organizations agree that while the program is well structured to achieve its goals, communications between ORD and EPA's program offices should be improved.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2001, EPA reported that it had taken steps to address our recommendation. Specifically, EPA has: (1) developed a system to collect, review, and post abstracts and project reports; (2) established a process to send reminder notes to grantees to assure timely submission of final reports; and (3) sent correspondence to all grantees reaffirming the reporting requirements of a grant and emphasizing the importance of timely submisssion of final reports. Consequently, we are closing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance the effectiveness of the STAR program, the Administrator of EPA should direct the Assistant Administrator of ORD to track and monitor the grants to ensure that interim and final research results are delivered on time and are made available as soon as possible for use by the program offices.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) has agreed to review the effectiveness of the results of STAR research by individual research area. The SAB is currently conducting an evaluation of the Water and Watersheds research program to establish criteria for reviewing the program. In addition, EPA is negotiating with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to evaluate the STAR program on a broad scale and then by specific issues. NAS has provided an evaluation proposal to EPA and a contract with NAS is expected to be signed by the end of September 2001.

    Recommendation: To enhance the effectiveness of the STAR program, the Administrator of EPA should direct the Assistant Administrator of ORD to develop program criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of each type of grant--exploratory grants, focused grants, and fellowships. In addition, the criteria should assist EPA in drawing an overall conclusion on whether these grants satisfy the program's overall objectives.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Assistant Administrator of ORD took additional steps to better disseminate and communicate STAR research results by (1) hiring additional staff to manage and communicate research results, (2) developing state-of-science reports in EPA priority research areas, (3) conducting annual STAR progress reviews in specific research areas, and (4) conducting evaluations of its efforts to communicate research results with program offices and regions.

    Recommendation: To enhance the effectiveness of the STAR program, the Administrator of EPA should direct the Assistant Administrator of ORD to take the additional steps needed to better disseminate and communicate STAR research results to the appropriate program officials. This would require continuing and expanding the efforts already under way to consult with program offices in determining the most effective communication methods.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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