Key Issues > Federal Research Oversight
science icon, source: National Cancer Institute

Federal Research Oversight

The federal government spends billions on funding research and development projects—but could better oversee how these funds are spent.

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Science and technology advances are key to our economic, social, and environmental well-being. Federal research plays a critical role in supporting those advancements.

Since the 1950s, the federal government has spent an increasing amount of money on federal research and development (R&D), reaching a peak of about $147 billion in FY 2010. Federal R&D funding is currently distributed across 14 different departments and independent agencies. Now more than ever, federal research oversight is needed to ensure that these funds are being used effectively. 

There are a number of ways that the federal government could improve its oversight of federal research and development. 

For instance:

  • Public access to the results of federally funded research can accelerate scientific breakthroughs. In 2013, certain federal agencies were directed to create plans for increasing public access to publications and data they funded. However, not all agencies have fully implemented these plans.
  • Federal guidance on scientific integrity includes principles that ensure the open exchange of information, and prevent the distortion of research findings for political or other reasons. However, some federal agencies have not incorporated these principles into their policies.
  • Federal agencies must enforce Title IX—which prohibits sex discrimination—at universities receiving federal financial assistance. However, many federal agencies that provide science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research grants to universities do not have goals or an overall plan to evaluate efforts to prevent sex discrimination.
  • Since 1982, federal agencies have given $46 billion to small businesses to help them develop and market new technologies (such as robotic vacuum cleaners and personal genetic testing kits). Businesses apply for these awards, and agencies aim to make awards within 180 days after the application deadline. However, many of these awards have not been made on time for a variety of reasons, such as heavy workloads for contract officers and slow responses from small businesses to requests for information.
  • The National Science Foundation funds construction of large science and engineering infrastructure projects, like telescopes, that can take years to build and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. NSF has taken steps to improve project management capabilities for its large facilities projects, and it is continuing to make efforts to address opportunities we have identified to improve project management, such as assessing the agency’s workforce to identify any project management competency gaps and developing a plan to address any gaps.

Federal research oversight will continue to be critical in evaluating the effectiveness of R&D investments. It can help maximize the use of constrained resources and harness the potential of future science and technology advances.

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