Federal Research Oversight
The federal government spends billions on funding research and development projects—but could better oversee how these funds are spent.
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.
- 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.
GAO-20-268: Published: Apr 3, 2020. Publicly Released: Apr 3, 2020.
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. Since our March 2019 report, 4 major NSF construction projects had no increases in their authorized costs or schedules. For example, the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is on track to be completed with...
GAO-20-187: Published: Mar 19, 2020. Publicly Released: Mar 19, 2020.
Federal agencies must enforce Title IX—which prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment—at universities receiving federal financial assistance. We looked at 5 agencies funding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research and found: 4 of 5 agencies received 3 or fewer complaints over the last 5 years 2 of 5 agencies lack or have outdated complaint procedure...
GAO-20-81: Published: Nov 21, 2019. Publicly Released: Nov 21, 2019.
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 access to publications and data they funded. The 19 agencies we reviewed made progress, but some have not fully implemented their plans. For example: 7 agencies have not taken steps to make data findable, such as creatin...
GAO-19-620: Published: Sep 26, 2019. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2019.
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 generally aim to make awards within 180 days after the application deadline. We reviewed 15,453 awards made over 3 years: 76% were made on time. However, the 28...
GAO-19-629: Published: Sep 24, 2019. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 2019.
Researchers often use animals to study disease, test product safety, experiment, or teach. Some uses cause animals pain or distress. Federal agencies require researchers to consider alternatives to animal use, such as computer modeling or working with cell cultures. The Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies have developed animal use alternatives and collaborate on these effor...
GAO-19-265: Published: Apr 4, 2019. Publicly Released: Apr 4, 2019.
How do federal agencies protect the integrity of scientific research? There is federal guidance on scientific integrity that includes principles that: Ensure the open exchange of information Prevent the distortion of research findings for political or other reasons The 9 agencies we reviewed have policies based on those principles. Most of them have taken some action in terms of educating staf...
GAO-18-656: Published: Sep 26, 2018. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2018.
Many federal agencies support research on quantum computing and synthetic biology. Experts we convened identified considerations, such as taking a strategic approach, that could help maintain U.S. competitiveness in these and other fields. We found that agencies have taken steps to collaborate on these activities, such as creating new interagency groups, but have not fully implemented key collabo...
GAO-18-533: Published: Sep 5, 2018. Publicly Released: Sep 5, 2018.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) brings in outside scientists, engineers, and educators on temporary, rotational assignment to work with its staff of permanent federal employees to help decide which projects the agency will fund. NSF wants to take a more strategic approach to managing its rotating staff. However, these rotating staff are blended with permanent staff, making it difficult to e...
GAO-18-207: Published: Jan 31, 2018. Publicly Released: Jan 31, 2018.
Under two federal programs, agencies have awarded $46 billion to small businesses to develop and commercialize innovative technologies. The Small Business Administration and participating agencies set two benchmarks to assess the recipient's progress and eligibility for future awards. For example, small businesses must meet a certain amount of sales, investments, or patents resulting from their ef...