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Staff Paper Prepared for the President's Commission to Study Capital Budgeting

June 19, 1998

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent agency established in 1950 to promote and advance scientific progress in the United States. NSF invests over $3.3 billion per year in almost 20,000 research and education projects in science and engineering. The scientific and engineering community first identifies emerging fields and priority issues to be addressed. This community participation provides a foundation for how NSF allocates its funds. NSF then develops its programs with respect to their relevance and potential contributions to science and society, their scientific merit, the readiness of the scientific community, interagency and international linkages, and investments required. The agency receives about 30,000 new proposals for funding per year and awards about one-third of them. In order to support the best people pursuing the best ideas, NSF makes its investments through a merit-based, competitive process involving expert peer review.

The following synopsis is not about the decision making process on NSF's overall budget which is based on a priority setting process that occurs as the overall budget is put together in which basic research competes with other major Federal policy goals such as defense or housing. This synopsis focuses on how funding decisions are made for an individual research project. In most cases, the scientific community first identifies a research need, then NSF in conjunction with the community develops a strategy to address the need. NSF will then usually award research grants to individual researchers or organizations through a competitive merit review process. Finally, NSF and other entities will then monitor the awardees progress and track the research results. The Arabidopsis project described below is a NSF initiative that provides an example of this process. In recent years, this project has become a model for widespread participation and effective coordination of multinational research efforts in modern biology.

I. Description of Investment

In 1990 an hoc group of international scientists established the Multinational Coordinated Arabidopsis thaliana Genome Research Project to promote international cooperation in basic and applied research with Arabidopsis thaliana. Arabidopsis is a small, flowering plant in the mustard family. The primary objective of the project is to understand the molecular basis of plant growth and to address fundamental questions in plant, genetics, physiology, biochemistry, cell biology, and pathology. NSF's funding for the Arabidopsis genome research program consists of support for general Arabidopsis research and, since FY 1996, funding for an accelerated program to sequence the entire genome of the plant. General research awards typically consist of grants to individuals and small groups of researchers. The large genome sequencing projects are awarded as cooperative agreements. NSF formally initiated its general Arabidopsis research effort in FY 1991 with a $7.8 million funding investment which has grown to $16.14 million in FY 1998. The sequencing program was funded at $4 million in FY 1996 and has $13 million available for FY 1998.

II. Decisionmaking Process

Assessing the Need. A long range plan for a multinational coordinated Arabidopsis thaliana genome research project was developed by an international community of scientists actively engaged in fundamental plant biology research. In 1990, an ad hoc committee composed of nine scientists from the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia prepared a report, published by NSF, which outlined a plan for international cooperation in understanding the structure and function of the genome of Arabidopsis. The project was developed based on the recognition of the plant biology community that an understanding of the molecular basis of plant biology is essential to meet the immediate and future challenges facing world agriculture and the global environment such as crop health and yield; that the use of Arabidopsis as a model system is extremely effective in studying plant biology; and that international coordination was necessary for rapid and efficient advances in the research.

Developing the Strategy. The community of independent scientists established the Multinational Science Steering Committee to recommend Arabidopsis genome research goals and make recommendations in key areas: coordinating the programmatic aspects of the project; coordinating key resources; monitoring and summarizing progress of scientific activities; serving as a liaison to the broader plant biology community; identifying the needs and opportunities of the Arabidopsis research communities and communicating them to funding agencies; and periodically updating the long-range plan.

To implement the U.S. component of the Arabidopsis effort, four U.S. agencies that had been supporting general Arabidopsis genome research on an ad hoc basis -- the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and NSF-- signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreeing that funding decisions on proposals involving Arabidopsis research would be coordinated among the agencies based on the objectives set by the Multinational Science Steering Committee. The MOU assigned NSF the lead for coordinating the research funding.

In its initial 1990 report, the Committee established a goal for identifying all the genes in Arabidopsis by the end of the century. At the time, sequencing the entire genome was not considered possible. It was not until 1994, however, that technological advances made it feasible to achieve this goal. A workshop held that year and convened by the Committee recommended an international program to complete the sequencing by 2004. In response, starting in FY 1996, a special NSF solicitation was used to announce an interagency program involving NSF, DOE and USDA to focus on sequencing the entire genome of Arabidopsis. The ultimate goal of this project is to sequence the entire Arabidopsis genome by the year 2004. In 1996, NSF awarded 3 three-year awards totaling $12 million to initiate the genome sequencing project. With enhanced support from Congress in FY 1998 in the form of the Plant Genome Initiative and with subsequent improvements in sequencing technology, that goal has been revised to the year 2000.

Funding, Management, and Merit Review. NSF initiated funding for a formal Arabidopsis genome research project with a budget request in FY 1991 for an additional $4.5 million above what had already been planned for this research area. With the appropriation of these funds, NSF funding for research on Arabidopsis totaled $7.8 million in FY 1991. A "virtual program" was established to fund outstanding individual general research projects that fell under the purview of the objectives of the Arabidopsis genome research project.

NSF informs potential applicants and the public about its activities through program announcements and special solicitations. Rather than release a special solicitation for proposals related to Arabidopsis research, NSF solicits proposals through on-going plant biology research announcements. NSF then selects appropriate Arabidopsis-related proposals recommended for funding through merit review. For each fiscal year, NSF identifies a funding level that is available for Arabidopsis research grants. This funding is for both on-going and new grants.

In general, NSF funding decisions are made largely through the process of merit review, in which expert evaluation by external peer reviewers contributes to recommendations by NSF program managers. Review of each proposal NSF receives is managed by an NSF program officer responsible for making the primary recommendation to award or decline. In general, it is the program officer's responsibility to see that the review of each proposal is properly conducted, to integrate the comments of external reviewers with his or her own judgement and with Foundation policies, and to arrive at a recommendation about whether or not to fund. In evaluating a grant proposal, the reviewers are asked to consider two broad criteria; other criteria specific to the particular program may be considered. The approved revised criteria for review of research proposals, effective October 1997, are: 1) What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity, and 2) What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

Five types of review mechanisms are used in various combinations to review proposals. They are: 1) Ad hoc review ­ Written evaluations solicited from scientists and engineers who are experts in the area covered by the proposal. Ad hoc review is accomplished by individual mail review; 2) Panel review ­ This procedure involves use of a group of non-NSF scientists and/or engineers to review a single proposal or group of proposals; 3) Site visits ­ These are sometimes used in addition to ad hoc and/or panel reviews when, for example, the requested funding is very high, the proposed organization is very complex, or a visit is needed for negotiation or facility inspection. Site visits can involve the program officer alone, or a combination of NSF staff and external consultants; 4) Staff review ­ The professional expert judgement of the program officer and his/her immediate colleagues within the NSF; and 5) Consultation with other funding agencies ­ This may be necessary when a proposal is submitted to several agencies by the same investigator or when projects, such as the Arabidopsis genome research project, are being funded via a partnership with other agencies.

For Arabidopsis proposals, NSF relies upon panel reviews, ad hoc reviews, and consultation with other funding agencies. Site visits have also been used for larger, more complex proposals.

Monitoring. The Multinational Science Steering Committee has assumed responsibility for proposing goals and reporting progress toward their completion. Progress toward accomplishing yearly goals is reviewed by the Committee in its annual progress reports, in annual reports prepared by NSF, and by Committees of Visitors (COVs), NSF oversight groups composed of community representatives.

III. Specific Factors Related to Investment Decisions

A. Linkage to Strategic Goals. While the Arabidopsis project predated NSF's Government Performance and Results Act strategic plan, it is representative of the types of research that directly contribute to three of the four goals outlined in the agency's current strategic plan. These are: 1) Discovery at and across the frontier of science and engineering--The immediate goal of the Arabidopsis project is to understand the biological processes underlying the growth and development of all plants; 2) Connections between discoveries and their use in service to society--Detailed information on specific genes and cellular process discovered via support for the project might be applied to a wide range of plants relevant to agriculture, health, energy, and the environment; and 3) A diverse, globally-oriented workforce of scientists and engineers--Funding for this project includes support for individual investigator projects, collaborative research, and international collaborations.

B. Long term planning. Short-term, ten-year, and long-term goals are established, monitored, and revised by the Multinational Science Steering Committee in its annual progress report published by NSF. NSF revises its efforts in response to those reports.

C. Biases for or against project compared to other agency priorities. Through the Directorate for Biological Sciences, NSF has maintained the Arabidopsis project as a priority in its funding portfolio. Since 1991, the Directorate has provided approximately $107 million for general Arabidopsis genome research related activities. The Directorate has provided a total of an additional $19 million from FY 1996 through FY 1998 for additional sequencing efforts. An acceleration of the sequencing effort was made possible by the congressionally-directed National Plant Genome Initiative in FY 1998, which stated as one of its short term goals the completion of the sequencing of the Arabidopsis genome within five years. That goal was established in response to Congress' addition of $40 million to the NSF FY 1998 budget specifically for the Plant Genome Initiative, of which $10 million is provided for Arabidopsis sequencing.

D. Full funding. Not applicable.

E. Spikes or lumpiness. The additional $10 million from the $40 million appropriated by Congress in FY 1998 for the Plant Genome Initiative helped accelerate sequencing efforts.

F. Benefit/cost analysis. A benefit/cost analysis was not developed for this project because of the nature of basic research whose benefits can be long-term and very difficult to quantify.

G. Leasing issues. Not applicable.

H. Dedicated revenues. Not applicable.

I. Inability under BEA to use dedicated revenues to finance discretionary capital spending. Not applicable.

President's Commission to Study Capital Budgeting

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