Federal Relations

House Science Committee Holds Oversight Hearing on Recovery Act Funding

The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) has prepared the following summary of the March 19th House Science Committee Hearing on the use of funding for science provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

NASULGC Summary

The House Science Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing on Thursday, March 19, on accountability and transparency related to investments of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds in science.  Titled, “Follow the Money: Accountability and Transparency in Recovery Act Science Funding,” the hearing was convened by Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) and attended by Ranking Member Paul Broun (R-GA), Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA), and Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA).

The hearing was comprised of two panels:  1) “Senior Accountability Officers” responsible for planning for spending ARRA funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, Department of Commerce (DOC), and Department of Energy (DOE); and 2) the Inspectors General from NSF, DOE, DOC, a representative from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and a Research Fellow from George Mason University.

The testimony and question-and-answer session for the first panel focused on how the agencies are preparing – and how well they are prepared – to manage, distribute and oversee their agencies’ ARRA funds.  The committee also wanted to know when the funds would be disbursed.  All of the agency representatives spelled out the various steps they are taking to prepare for disbursement, identify potential trouble areas in contracting and procurement, and ways the agencies are trying to collaborate.

Of particular note were comments from Dr. Cora Marrett, Acting Deputy Director at NSF, who indicated that NSF expected to begin making awards in the next two to three weeks, focusing on projects that were “declined” funding on or after October 1, 2008.  NSF expects the disbursement of the funds will have wide geographic distribution.

During the question-and-answer session, Chairman Miller raised the growing concern voiced by the university community that Grants.gov, the federal online grant submission mechanism, probably cannot handle the expected huge increase in grant applications flooding the agencies.  Miller suggested that the Executive Branch delay further investments in Grants.gov and focus on developing alternative methods to submit grant applications.  The agency representatives indicated that there are ongoing discussions among them – especially among NSF, DOE and National Institutes of Health (NIH) – about whether the NSF “Fast Lane” program could be adapted for use by the other agencies.

Chairman Miller also asked what kind of guidance grant recipients would be provided regarding how to measure “jobs created and jobs retained” through stimulus grants.  The agency staff stated that they are waiting to receive guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but did not know when it would be issued.

The Inspector Generals and the GAO official outlined areas of concern regarding the ability of each agency to appropriately manage and oversee the proper use of the Recovery funds to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.  All of the IGs cited concerns about the ability of agency staff to handle significant increases in workload given that none had received funds for additional full-time personnel.  (In earlier testimony, the agency representatives indicated plans to employ workload management techniques and possibly the use of part-time, temporary staff to handle the increase.)

Two areas of potential risk cited by the NSF IG are the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) program and monitoring of previously-made awards.  The IG also expressed  concern that the large inflow of dollars into “an already highly competitive arena where areas of questionable research practices and inadequate training in the responsible conduct of research remain unresolved, can only increase the opportunities for abuse.”  The IG noted further that his office will be “watchful of award recipients whose financial systems may have difficulty handling a sizable influx of funds.”

Copies of hearing statements are available on the committee website.