In 2011, the National Science Foundation (NSF) pledged $434 million to build the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), an ecological observation system that spans the North America. NEON is currently estimated to be 18 months behind schedule and $80 million over budget, and financial audits alleged misuse of federal tax payer dollars for liquor, lobbying, and an extravagant party. To improve the financial management and oversight of large-scale (more than $100 million) research projects at NSF, Congressman Barry Loudermilk (GA-11) introduced the NSF Major Research Facility Reform Act of 2016, H.R. 5049. The bill was reported unanimously out of committee by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology after amendments from Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX-30) and Rep. Loudermilk (GA-11).
The bill proposes to strengthen accountability and transparency and tighten management control of NSF’s Research Facilities. It is proposed that each new large-scale project will be overseen by a large-facility department within NSF, and a designated senior NSF official will retain direct oversight. NSF will also now reserve control of the majority of the funds during the building phase, rather than the awardee. Audits will take place before construction begins and at least every two years thereafter to ensure building is on track and on budget. Further, the bill would close loopholes to ensure taxpayer funds are only be used appropriately and supports education of NSF employees on laws that protects whistleblowers.
Congressman Bill Foster (IL-11), the only physicist in Congress, offered and withdrew an amendment to downgrade biennial audits to smaller oversight to save time and money within the projects. Additionally, he noted that NSF does not actually fund many of these large-scale projects.
This bill gained bipartisan support while Members stressed the past successes of NSF.