National Science Foundation:

Problems Found in Decision Process for Awarding Earthquake Center

RCED-87-146: Published: Jun 24, 1987. Publicly Released: Jul 6, 1987.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO examined the National Science Foundation's (NSF) procedures for awarding a cooperative agreement for an earthquake engineering research center (EERC) to determine whether: (1) the panelists that NSF chose exhibited favoritism for any proposal; (2) the panelists met NSF selection criteria for reviewers; and (3) problems existed with NSF management of the award process.

GAO noted that, since no documentation existed describing the panel's evaluation process, it based its findings on interviews with each panelist. GAO found that: (1) there was no evidence to suggest that panel members showed favoritism for one proposal over another during evaluation deliberations; and (2) the panelists' qualifications met NSF selection criteria and seemed appropriate for evaluating proposals for the center, since all had experience managing large research efforts, one was an earthquake engineering expert, and three had earthquake engineering experience. GAO also found serious problems with NSF management of the award process, since: (1) existing documentation did not adequately justify the award; (2) the matching funds requirement was not clear; and (3) the use of a conditional recommendation created the appearance of prejudgment.

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: To ensure that the problems that occurred in the EERC award do not occur in the future, the Director, NSF, should require documentation in large award packages that clearly link reviewers' comments for each proposal to the stated criteria in the program announcement, in order to better show and defend the reasons an award went to one proposal over another. NSF should develop criteria, such as the size or sensitivity of the award, indicating which awards would require this documentation, since it would not be practical for all. This documentation would: (1) force a more systematic accounting of the criteria during the panelists' deliberations, which would lessen the likelihood of criteria not known by the proposers from entering the evaluation process; and (2) protect and ensure the impartiality and credibility of the NSF decision.

    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: To ensure that the problems that occurred in the EERC award do not occur in the future, the Director, NSF, should require that the program announcement clearly specify the requirements for matching funds commitments. This should include such items as the due date for the commitment, the duration of the commitment, and the types of funding that are acceptable (in-kind or cash). Adhering to these requirements would ensure that all applicants compete by the same rules.

    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: To ensure that the problems that occurred in the EERC award do not occur in the future, the Director, NSF, should avoid the appearance of preselecting a particular proposer by directing the NSF staff to not consider conditional recommendations in situations in which the evaluation of the substantive merits of all proposals has not been completed.

    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.

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