NRC Report on Evaluating Federal Research Programs: 2-22-99

The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) became Public Law 103-62 on August 3, 1993. The purpose of GPRA is to evaluate and give more direction to federal agencies, holding them accountable to Congress and the public for achieving results. Each agency must develop a long-term strategic plan with multiyear goals and objectives. Annual Performance Plans with performance measures and targets and expected outcomes are also required along with Performance Reports that compare actual performance to the performance projected in the Annual Performance Plan. More information on GPRA is available on the AGI website. The scientific community has raised concern over how to measure basic research performance under GPRA.

To answer this questions, the National Academies of Science and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine recently conducted a study and released a report by their Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) entitled "Evaluating Federal Research Programs: Research and the Government Performance and Results Act." During the study, the committee held a public meeting, a summary of which is available on the  AGI website.

The report states that "useful outcomes of basic research cannot be measured directly on an annual basis, because the usefulness of new basic knowledge is inherently too unpredictable. The does not mean that there are no meaningful measures of performance of basic research while the research is in progress." During a press conference unveiling the report, Committee Chair Phillip Griffiths, director, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ remarked, "Federal agencies should use a method we call 'expert review' to assess the quality of research they support, the relevance of that research to their mission, and the leadership of the research." The committee recommended using peer review to assess quality; review by experts in the field and potential users in other fields to review the relevance of the research to an agency's mission; and international panels to assess the "whether the research is at the forefront of scientific and technical knowledge." For applied research, "agencies should measure progress toward practical outcomes."

At the press conference, Griffiths explained the report's recommendation for better communication between agencies. He said, "better communication is necessary to enhance collaboration, to help keep important questions from being overlooked, and to reduce duplication of effort. The committee recommends that a formal process be established to identify and coordinate areas of research that are supported by multiple agencies."

In addition, the report states that "the nation cannot benefit from advances in science and technology without a continuing supply of well-educated and well-trained scientists and engineers." It encourages agencies to focus on human resources, in terms of training and educating young scientists.

Finally, the report recommends that the scientific and engineering community should become more familiar with and more involved in the implementation of GPRA. Because many scientists will be affected by the requirements of GPRA and may be involved in peer review, they should have a better understanding of the rule.

Reaction to the report has been positive from the leadership of the House Science Committee, which requested that National Academy of Sciences conduct a study that would determine whether basic research could be subjected to the performance measures in GPRA. Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) stated, "I fully support the findings in this report and agree that the science and engineering communities can play an effective role in evaluating research programs within the framework of the Results Act," Ranking Member George E. Brown, Jr. (D.-Calif.) added, "Measuring the results of research is notoriously difficult, especially in the year-to-year budget cycles called for by the Results Act. I am grateful to COSEPUP for sketching out some useful values to be used in establishing qualitative measures of success for our R&D programs."

Copies of the study are available on the NAS website.

Sources: National Research Council, AIP

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Kasey Shewey White, AGI Government Affairs

Last updated February 22, 1999

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