Government Operations:

Observations on the National Science Foundation's Fiscal Year 1999 Performance Report and Fiscal Year 2001 Performance Plan

RCED-00-205R: Published: Jun 1, 2000. Publicly Released: Aug 1, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the National Science Foundation's (NSF) fiscal year (FY) 1999 performance report and FY 2001 performance plan.

GAO noted that: (1) NSF's FY 1999 performance report demonstrates that NSF was generally successful in achieving the outcome involving "discoveries at and across the frontier of science and engineering" in research areas such as biology, Arctic and Antarctic research, and discoveries in how the young learn; (2) NSF judged its performance as successful on the basis of: (a) program reviews by independent committees; and (b) examples of outstanding science chosen to show NSF's achievements; (3) the performance report, however, sheds little light on the quality of committees' reports, and NSF officials acknowledged that the quality of these reports varied; (4) as a result, in its FY 2001 performance plan, NSF cites numerous shortcomings in the committees' program evaluations; (5) like the committees' reports, the FY 1999 performance report also fails to describe NSF's financial role in the examples of scientific successes presented; (6) despite these limitations, the performance report adequately condenses the committees' numerous program reports which in turn reflect NSF's accomplishments with regard to this outcome; (7) NSF's FY 1999 performance report indicates clear progress toward achieving the goals embodied in the second key outcome, "administer research grants efficiently and effectively;" (8) the outcome, while not explicitly included among NSF's outcomes in its FY 1999 and 2000 performance plans, may be inferred from several performance goals that are included in its investment and management process goals; (9) the included goals and measures are generally objective and quantifiable; (10) the performance report adequately reflects that NSF achieved some, but not all, of these goals; (11) NSF's FY 1999 performance report and FY 2001 performance plan discussed 2 of 10 major management challenges identified by NSF's Inspector General (IG) but did not address directly or indirectly the other 8 challenges; (12) the report and plan addressed NSF's progress in managing an effective merit review system and implementing a new electronic proposal and award information system; (13) the IG no longer considers these issues as major challenges but stressed the need for NSF to be alert to emerging situations that could result in them becoming a problem; (14) the IG said that NSF was taking effective steps to respond to these challenges and did not need to include them in the performance report or future performance plans; and (15) however, the IG continues to be concerned about the four remaining challenges that the performance report did not discuss.

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