Saturday, November 2, 2013

Rotating Program Directors at NSF

I recently commented on a blog post by Jeffrey Mervis on the AAAS Science blog at , which acknowledged the pros of using faculty members from academic institutions as "temporary" or "rotating" program directors at the National Science Foundation (NSF), side by side with permanent Federal staff, but Mr. Mervis' article also points out that monetary savings might be achieved over the present implementation of NSF's rotator program.

I served at NSF as a rotating program director in the Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE) Directorate from 2007-2010 and have thoughts on the NSF rotator program. I repeat my comments to Mr. Mervis's article here, but I emphasized in these comments what savings might be most productive and doable; in addition, I think that some of the other recommendations of monetary savings in the Inspector General (IG) report cited in Mr. Mervis' original post seem less achievable or even less desirable -- maybe I will elaborate another day. I also argue that NSF should broaden its perspective on the possible benefits of rotating program directors.


Your post (part I) and the IG’s report paint an accurate, though brief, picture of the IPA program: IPAs (and other staff) work hard and very competently, benefiting science and engineering research and education in the United States, but cost savings are possible. Of the suggested savings, reducing IPA travel back and forth between home institution and NSF would probably be (the most) productive. Frequent (e.g., weekly) travel by an IPA is costly, and it can also disrupt operations in NSF’s team-oriented environment. For IPAs who commit to a life predominantly in the DC area, I hope that NSF continues to pay for their relocation. However, for those who would prefer life predominantly at their home institution, let them telework, probably after an onsite orientation period that is designed to protect NSF esprit de corps. In either case, limit travel back and forth to some sensible number of trips, because 50 IRD trips a year is ridiculous, even if 50 days of IRD is not. This might also put NSF in a better position to negotiate for partial IPA compensation by the institutions of those rotators who stay at home (because the idea that NSF should expect home institutions to partially compensate IPAs who are working extraordinary hours for the government, and that's particularly true of anyone onsite at NSF, seems misplaced). Importantly, these arrangements are easier said than done, at least while preserving the benefits of the IPA program.

While I limited trips to my home institution of Vanderbilt University, I nonetheless ran two “virtual” review panels from my Vanderbilt office, supporting the IG’s contention (and many in NSF’s operational divisions too!) that much can be done through remote communication technology. And now we are getting into a largely underutilized advantage of the IPA program – that IPAs can benefit NSF operations as well as the scientific mission. IPAs are smart, usually very dedicated people who are watching and innovating the operations of NSF. For example, fully 3/4 of the review panelists that I recruited were virtual panelists – they participated by phone or video conferencing, and saved NSF substantial travel costs. My supervisors in the organization, including two IPAs, supported this activity. Other IPAs innovated in similar ways, as well as some members of the permanent staff. If NSF made a commitment to supporting IPAs who had a desire to telework from their home institutions, with protections in place to protect high-quality communication, responsiveness, and NSF esprit de corps, it would go a long way to building a culture in which much larger monetary savings could be realized through the use of virtual panelists ( ), as well as reaping other substantial advantages of virtual panelists ( )

Apropos the possibility of operational benefits of IPAs, exit interviews of IPAs seemed spotty and certainly not universal when I was there. It strikes me as a terrific lost opportunity if NSF is bringing in talented faculty members, almost all of who have the luxury of speaking their mind because of job security that stems from tenure, and not exit interviewing them and then acting on those interviews!

The IG report also suggests the desirability of a person or office dedicated to evaluating the IPA program on a continuing basis – that is a terrific idea. I have no doubt that ongoing evaluation would affirm the scientific advantages of the IPA program and improve IPA management. In particular, John Conway’s article alludes to the “cultural” differences that often exist between academia and the team-oriented environment of NSF. An IPA-oversight officer who respected and appreciated the IPA mission would presumably help define best practices of IPA orientation, training, and management to effect the transition to the NSF environment, as well as evaluate the program.

Finally, part 2 ( ) of your article highlights a case where an IPA may have been powerless and dismissed summarily. I do not know this case, but five comments seem relevant and responsible: (1) I was proud of NSF’s policies and practices regarding conflicts of interest (COI), and I wish they were standards practiced throughout our Federal government; (2) my experience was that the professional ethics officials at NSF were honorable, highly competent, and responsive to requests for clarification and other help on COI issues; (3) the COI standards are high (thus my pride), but I would regard a case like that outlined as forgivable and correctable in a gentler and more constructive fashion than that described -- I can imagine circumstances in which I might have missed real or perceived COIs too; (4) if there were an officer responsible for assessing the IPA program at NSF, then presumably they would have looked carefully at the actions of all IPAs involved, including supervisors, and made corrective recommendations on IPA training and management at all levels; and (5) the individuals within NSF best placed to speak out on any injustice might well be IPAs, again because of the job security that stems from tenure at their home institutions. That’s not to say that rotators should be watchdogs, but more thought should go into how to use IPAs effectively to inform operations and management, as well as science.

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