Introduction

The National Academies Committee on Setting Priorities for National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored Large Research Facility Projects was charged with examining NSF’s current process for setting priorities, developing criteria that should be considered in setting priorities, and providing recommendations as to how that process can be strengthened and optimized. The committee was also to provide recommendations regarding the role that the availability of interagency and international large facility projects should play in the decision-making process. Furthermore, the committee was to provide recommendations as to how construction and operation of these facilities can be improved.

The large facility projects supported by NSF are nearly as varied as the scientific research that the foundation supports. Some facilities include new and increasingly powerful versions of instruments that have been used for decades to study the natural world, such as telescopes or particle accelerators. Other large facilities use new ways of gathering information; examples are a new facility designed to measure gravity waves generated by such cosmic events as star collisions and supernovae and a proposed facility that would detect high-energy neutrinos in a large volume of Antarctic ice to provide information about the astrophysical sources of extremely high-energy cosmic rays. Some large facilities primarily serve specific scientific disciplines, such as optical telescopes and radio-telescopes for astronomy and observatory networks for oceanography. Other facilities enable research in a wide array of disciplines; for example,



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Setting Priorities for Large Research Facility Projects Supported by the National Science Foundation Introduction The National Academies Committee on Setting Priorities for National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored Large Research Facility Projects was charged with examining NSF’s current process for setting priorities, developing criteria that should be considered in setting priorities, and providing recommendations as to how that process can be strengthened and optimized. The committee was also to provide recommendations regarding the role that the availability of interagency and international large facility projects should play in the decision-making process. Furthermore, the committee was to provide recommendations as to how construction and operation of these facilities can be improved. The large facility projects supported by NSF are nearly as varied as the scientific research that the foundation supports. Some facilities include new and increasingly powerful versions of instruments that have been used for decades to study the natural world, such as telescopes or particle accelerators. Other large facilities use new ways of gathering information; examples are a new facility designed to measure gravity waves generated by such cosmic events as star collisions and supernovae and a proposed facility that would detect high-energy neutrinos in a large volume of Antarctic ice to provide information about the astrophysical sources of extremely high-energy cosmic rays. Some large facilities primarily serve specific scientific disciplines, such as optical telescopes and radio-telescopes for astronomy and observatory networks for oceanography. Other facilities enable research in a wide array of disciplines; for example,

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Setting Priorities for Large Research Facility Projects Supported by the National Science Foundation the ground facilities, ships, and aircraft stationed in Antarctica allow scientists to study the atmosphere, ice, oceans, and geology of the region. Regardless of their detailed characteristics, all large facility projects are being affected by the accelerating development of information technologies. Increasing quantities and varieties of information are being gathered, rapidly analyzed, and interpreted. Information technologies are also changing the fundamental nature of many large facility projects. New information technologies are making it possible, for example, for many large facilities to consist of smaller instruments and research projects in widely distributed geographic locations. The George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, which is intended to improve the seismic design and performance of the US civil and mechanical infrastructure, will consist of 15 experimental equipment sites linked by a high-performance Internet system. Elements of EarthScope, a distributed project to study the structure and dynamics of North America, will operate in nearly every county in the United States during the project’s lifetime of 8-10 years. The proposed National Ecological Observatory Network would consist of geographically distributed observatories linked to laboratories, data archives, and computer modeling facilities. In FY 1995, NSF created the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account to support the “acquisition, construction, commissioning, and upgrading of major research equipment, facilities, and other such capital assets” that cost more than several tens of millions of dollars. The MREFC account was created to separate the construction funding for a large facility—which can rise and fall dramatically over the course of a few years—from the more continuous funding of facility operations and individual-investigator research. The account, however, has remained too small to fund all the large facility projects that NSF would like to undertake now and in the future, as the National Science Board (NSB) points out in its report Science and Engineering Infrastructure for the 21st Century. Of NSF’s FY 2004 budget request of $5.48 billion, about 24.5 percent, or $1.34 billion, is for the budget category of “tools,” which includes support for large facilities and the small- and medium-scale infrastructure needed for state-of-the-art research.1 The remainder of NSF’s research and education budget is divided into two additional categories: “ideas” and “people.” In the tools category, the request for the MREFC account was $202 million—about 15 percent of the tools budget request and about 3.7 percent of NSF’s total request. 1   National Science Foundation, FY 2004 Budget Request.

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Setting Priorities for Large Research Facility Projects Supported by the National Science Foundation Despite representing less than 4 percent of the total NSF budget, the facility projects supported through the MREFC account are highly visible because of their large project budgets, their potential to shape the course of future research in one or more fields, their potential economic benefits for particular regions, their effects on international cooperation in research, and their prominence in an increasing number of research fields. They also represent initial investments in particular fields that will require continuing support to operate, maintain, and perhaps upgrade. In addition, many of the issues raised by these projects must also be considered in terms of their impact on other NSF projects and programs as NSF proposes its portfolio of investments for each fiscal year.

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