Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union

Congressional hearing reviews NSF major research and facilities projects



An 8 March congressional hearing about the U.S. National Science Foundation's Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (NSF MREFC) account focused on fiscal management and accountability of projects in that account and reviewed concerns raised by NSF's Office of Inspector General (OIG). NSF established the MREFC account in 1995 to better plan and manage investments in major equipment and facilities projects, which can cost from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars, and the foundation has funded 17 MREFC projects since then. The Obama administration's proposed fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget includes funding for four MREFC projects: Advanced Laser Gravitational-Wave Observatory (AdvLIGO), Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST), National Ecological Observatory (NEON), and Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). The hearing, held by a subcommittee of the House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, reviewed management oversight throughout the life cycles of MREFC projects and concerns raised in recent OIG reports about the use of budget contingency funds. NSF's February 2012 manual called “Risk management guide for large facilities” states that cost contingency is “that portion of the project budget required to cover ‘known unknowns,’” such as planning and estimating errors and omissions, minor labor or material price fluctuations, and design developments and changes within the project scope. Committee members acknowledged measures that NSF has made to improve the MREFC oversight process, but they also urged the agency to continue to take steps to ensure better project management.