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National Science Foundation: Cost and Schedule Performance of Large Facilities Construction Projects and Opportunities to Improve Project Management

GAO-19-227 Published: Mar 27, 2019. Publicly Released: Mar 27, 2019.
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Fast Facts

The National Science Foundation funds construction of large science and engineering infrastructure projects, such as telescopes, that can take years to build and often cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

We found NSF has identified the project management expertise needed for its oversight of these projects, which may help keep them on schedule and on budget. However, NSF hasn't yet assessed whether its staff have that expertise, nor has it identified the project management expertise needed within the organizations receiving NSF funds for projects.

We made 4 recommendations, including that NSF assess gaps in project management expertise.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope being built atop a mountain in Chile is estimated to cost NSF $471 million to construct over 8 years. It will collect data to chart billions of galaxies and increase knowledge of potentially hazardous asteroids, among other things.

Illustration of the mountaintop facility.

Illustration of the mountaintop facility.

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What GAO Found

The National Science Foundation (NSF) took some steps to help ensure that its own oversight staff for large facilities projects and the agency's award recipients—such as universities or companies that design, construct, and operate the projects on a day-to-day basis—have project management expertise, but it had not taken certain additional steps. For example, as called for by leading practices, in 2018 NSF identified competencies needed by its oversight staff to ensure their project management expertise. In contrast, the agency had not yet assessed potential gaps in how well its staff met the competencies or established a time frame for doing so. Having such an assessment would help NSF target workforce strategies to fill any gaps identified. To assess the expertise of recipients, NSF relies on the judgment of external panels of experts it periodically convenes to review large facilities projects during design and construction. However, NSF had not established criteria for project management expertise needed by recipients, potentially increasing the risk of awarding funds to recipients that may not be well-qualified to manage large construction projects.

In 2017 NSF formalized its process to identify and share lessons learned on large facilities projects. This process was consistent with key practices from GAO's prior work on lessons learned. However, the agency had not established a requirement for all recipients to provide potential lessons learned. Ensuring, through a requirement or other means, that all recipients provide lessons learned could help NSF identify lessons that would benefit other projects.

NSF completed construction of the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory in 2018, continued construction on four other large facilities projects, and advanced the design of two; these projects had varying cost and schedule performance. Since GAO's June 2018 report, NSF delayed completion of the National Ecological Observatory Network by 3 months, for a total delay of 2.6 years; other projects under construction had no cost or schedule increases.

Cost and Schedule Performance of NSF Large Facilities Projects Recently Completed or Under Construction, as of September 2018

                                                                                                                                                                                         Cumulative performance since starting construction

Project name

Percentage complete

Scheduled completion date



   Scope reductionsa   

Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory





National Ecological Observatory Networkb



Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope



Large Synoptic Survey Telescope






Regional Class Research Vessels






Legend: - = no cost or schedule increase or scope reductions; ▲ = cost or schedule increased; ✔ = scope reduced.

Source: GAO analysis of National Science Foundation (NSF) documents and information from NSF officials.  |  GAO-19-227

aScope reductions are in response to NSF's policy on cost overruns or as part of a cost increase.

bThe percentage complete and schedule for the National Ecological Observatory Network are as of November 2018, when NSF extended the project's schedule.

Why GAO Did This Study

NSF awards cooperative agreements and contracts to external funding recipients to fund construction of science and engineering research infrastructure, such as telescopes. These large facilities projects typically have construction costs of at least $70 million and may take many years to design and construct. Having expertise in project management can help keep complex projects on schedule and on budget, and identifying lessons learned from projects can help improve project oversight and performance.

Senate Report 114-239 and House Report 114-605 included provisions for GAO to review NSF's large facilities projects. This report examines, among other things, (1) steps NSF has taken to ensure the project management expertise of NSF staff and award recipients, (2) the extent to which NSF identifies and shares lessons learned on large facilities projects, and (3) the cost and schedule performance of NSF's ongoing large facilities projects. GAO analyzed NSF policies and documents for the seven projects in design or construction, interviewed agency officials, and compared NSF's processes to leading practices identified in prior GAO work.


GAO is making four recommendations to NSF including that NSF assess any gaps in its oversight staff's project management expertise, establish criteria for recipients' project management expertise, and ensure that recipients provide any lessons learned on projects to NSF. NSF generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Science Foundation The Director of NSF should assess the agency's large facilities oversight workforce to identify any project management competency gaps, develop a plan to address any gaps and time frames for doing so, and monitor progress in closing them. (Recommendation 1)
Open – Partially Addressed
NSF agreed with this recommendation and has taken some steps to identify, address, and monitor competency gaps, but has not yet fully addressed the recommendation. For example, in April 2020 we reported that NSF hired a contractor to develop a competency model and identify competency gaps through a proficiency assessment and workforce gap analysis. While the analysis found certain individuals had gaps in certain areas such as award management, project management, and risk management, among others, the results showed that the NSF's project teams as a single group possessed the competencies expected. According to NSF officials, NSF is using the results of the analysis to address these gaps by developing a course curriculum tool that generates individual training plans for its major facilities oversight staff. The competency model will be used as a basis for monitoring project management competencies of oversight staff during individual assessments. In addition, NSF has also revised standard operating guidance that defines the minimum core competencies for oversight of major facilities projects to incorporate the competency model. According to NSF officials, the course curriculum tool has been tested and will be available for use by NSF staff in the third quarter of fiscal year 2022. We will continue to review NSF's progress in implementing the course curriculum tool, and will provide an update once NSF provides documentation showing that the tool has been implemented.
National Science Foundation The Director of NSF should establish criteria for the project management expertise of award recipients for large facilities projects and incorporate the criteria in project requirements and external panel reviews. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
NSF agreed with this recommendation and has taken appropriate steps to address the recommendation and ensure project management expertise of award recipients of major facilities projects. In December 2021, NSF issued an updated Research Infrastructure Guide that includes a new section on project management expertise of award recipients. The new guidance identifies key personnel and competency requirements for management of major facilities projects, along with descriptions of each type of personnel and competency. For example, the guidance identifies project management, program management, earned value management, and risk management as several key competencies required for award recipients. NSF also issued internal guidance in June 2022 that requires external panel reviews to assess project management expertise of award recipients in the areas identified by the Research Infrastructure Guide. According to NSF officials, NSF had been informally using these requirements prior to June 2022. For example, their re-baseline review for the AIMS project and preliminary design review for the LCCF project both included analysis of project management expertise among the respective recipients. The agency's actions demonstrate sufficient actions that implement this recommendation.
National Science Foundation The Director of NSF should ensure, through a requirement or other means, that award recipients for large facilities projects provide information to NSF on any lessons learned or best practices. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
NSF agreed with this recommendation and in October 2020 updated its supplemental award terms and conditions for major facilities to require recipients to participate in NSF's process for identifying and sharing lessons learned on projects - for example, by sending appropriate staff to the annual major facilities workshop that NSF hosts to provide a collaborative forum for continuous learning and information-sharing or by presenting lessons learned or good practices at the workshop.
National Science Foundation The Director of NSF should ensure that the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project's schedule meets the well-constructed and credible characteristics of a reliable schedule, as defined in GAO's schedule guide. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
The July 2019 update to the project's schedule addressed our recommendation by substantially meeting four of the five best practices that we previously found had been partially met within the well-constructed and credible characteristics of a reliable schedule and partially meeting the remaining best practice (ensuring reasonable total float). For example, the updated schedule substantially met the best practice for sequencing all activities in that it was logically sequenced and had no date constraints preventing it from reliably predicting dates and responding to changes.

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ConstructionConstruction costsCooperative agreementsCost and schedule performanceCost and scheduleEarned value management systemsFacility constructionLessons learnedProject managementSkilled workforce