National Science Foundation: A Workforce Strategy and Evaluation of Results Could Improve Use of Rotating Scientists, Engineers, and Educators

GAO-18-533 Published: Sep 05, 2018. Publicly Released: Sep 05, 2018.
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Fast Facts

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 evaluate the cost and benefits of their contributions to NSF projects.

We recommended that NSF develop a strategy to balance the use of rotating and permanent staff and evaluate the benefits of using rotating staff.

Percentage of Temporary Staff—Known as Rotators—and Other Federal Staff in the NSF, Fiscal Years 2008 through 2017

Pie chart showing that two types of rotators account for about 15% of NSF staff

Pie chart showing that two types of rotators account for about 15% of NSF staff

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The numbers of rotators—outside scientists, engineers, and educators on temporary assignment—at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and their costs in proportion to other staff remained relatively stable in fiscal years 2008 through 2017. Most rotators joined NSF under its Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) mobility program. IPA rotators comprised about 12 percent of NSF's workforce and 17 percent of staff costs on average and were not subject to a federal salary cap. They remain employees of their home institutions, with NSF reimbursing the institutions for most of their salaries and benefits. The remaining rotators are considered temporary federal employees under the Visiting Scientist, Engineer, and Educator (VSEE) program; their salaries could not exceed the federal maximum for their positions.

National Science Foundation (NSF) Average Workforce Composition, Fiscal Years 2008 through 2017

National Science Foundation (NSF) Average Workforce Composition, Fiscal Years 2008 through 2017

Note: Percentages do not sum to 100 percent due to rounding.

Beginning in fiscal year 2017, NSF adopted IPA rotator program cost management strategies expected to achieve the greatest savings with the least harm to recruitment, but NSF officials said it is too soon to determine the full results. For example, for new IPA rotators who had not yet begun negotiating their assignments, NSF began requiring their home institutions to pay for 10 percent of the rotators' salary and benefits. NSF officials told GAO they expect to issue a report evaluating the strategies in December 2018.

NSF's IPA program steering committee recommended developing a workforce strategy for balancing the agency's use of rotators with federal staff, but as of June 2018, NSF had not developed a strategy or fully evaluated the IPA and VSEE rotator programs' results, as called for by GAO's key principles for effective strategic workforce planning. NSF officials said they recognized the value of a workforce strategy but were focusing instead on other workforce planning efforts, and they had not fully evaluated program results in part because rotators are blended into the agency's permanent workforce, making a separate evaluation difficult. Without a workforce strategy and evaluation of results, NSF is limited in its ability to manage and, if warranted, adjust its use of rotators.

Why GAO Did This Study

NSF has identified potential benefits and challenges associated with its use of rotators. Benefits include fresh perspectives and close connections to the scientific community, while challenges include staffing turnover and higher costs for some rotators compared with permanent employees.

GAO was asked to review NSF's use and management of the IPA and VSEE rotator programs, among other things. This report examines (1) the number, costs, and uses of NSF rotators for fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2017; (2) the strategies NSF has used to manage rotator costs and the results of these efforts; and (3) the extent to which NSF has a workforce strategy for using rotators and has evaluated the results of its rotator programs. GAO analyzed summary-level data on NSF's rotators; reviewed key documents; interviewed NSF officials; conducted semistructured interviews with a nongeneralizable sample of rotators and permanent federal employees selected from different scientific directorates within NSF; and compared NSF's management of the program to key principles for effective strategic workforce planning.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that NSF develop an agency-wide strategy for balancing the agency's use of rotators with permanent staff and evaluate the contributions of its rotator programs toward NSF's human capital goals and programmatic results. NSF agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Science Foundation The NSF Director of Human Resource Management should complete the development of an agency-wide workforce strategy for balancing the agency's use of IPA and VSEE rotators with permanent staff as part of NSF's current agency reform planning efforts or updates to its human capital operating plan. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
NSF implemented this recommendation by establishing an agency-wide process to gather data on staff usage and assess and plan for workforce needs for permanent staff and VSEE/IPA rotators. In particular, NSF piloted a staffing planning tool in the spring of 2019, deployed it throughout the agency in the spring of 2020, and developed a component of workforce planning to include discussion points and questions around directorates' and offices' current ratio of rotators to permanent staff. In the fall of 2020, NSF also formed a community of practice to share workforce planning best practices and tips on use of the staffing planning tool. As of May 2022, NSF was using its agency-wide process to gather information from its directorates and offices to assess workforce needs for fiscal years 2023 and 2024.
National Science Foundation The NSF Director of Human Resource Management should evaluate the contributions of the IPA and VSEE rotator programs toward NSF's human capital goals and the contributions the programs have made toward achieving programmatic results. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
In June 2022, NSF issued a report on its evaluation of the IPA rotator program, which was based on data from its Division of Human Resource Management. NSF's report concluded that the IPA program appears to help NSF advance science by providing a path for NSF to meet its goals at a lower cost than would otherwise be possible. NSF also found that the IPAs help promote partnerships and collaborations between their home states and NSF and that IPAs have increased in diversity over time as measured by the geographic location and other characteristics of their home institutions and by select demographic characteristics.

Full Report

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