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Major Award Decisionmaking at the National Science Foundation 6 Looking to the Future This report concludes that merit review—the peer review-based system of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for making awards—has generally worked well in decisionmaking on major projects over the years. It also concludes that the merit review system needs to be adjusted in certain ways to meet contemporary conditions. A major theme of the report has been that NSF should plan very carefully what to do, and how to do it, before worrying about specific proposal selection—because the key programmatic decision is whether or not to do something, not who eventually will get the award to carry it out. Such careful analysis of program needs and opportunities should first involve outside advice and staff judgment and then careful consideration by the National Science Board (NSB); it should precede and help shape the solicitation and review processes. Greater emphasis on front-end thinking will be increasingly important in the future because most fields of science are undergoing revolutionary change. There are exciting new discoveries, new more powerful instrumentation and facilities, and computational power is expanding dramatically. Advances in communications technologies are fostering the use of teams of researchers—even those widely separated geographically. As a result, all of science—both large and small, interconnected and individualistic—is becoming more dependent on expensive instruments and facilities. Rising costs also mean that support for some awards for unique facilities may have to come from other nations. Finally, actions taken by a federal government agency must increasingly be made with an awareness of
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Major Award Decisionmaking at the National Science Foundation investments by state governments, for example, in supercomputing facilities. The panel was not asked to address the issue of the appropriate balance between "big" and "little" science. This has been a contentious issue because of the fear that large projects may reduce the support available for the type of small research projects conceived and conducted by individual scientists and engineers that have led to many important scientific advances and breakthroughs. The big-little balance has become very serious due to a combination of tight NSF budgets and the relative appeal of large programs to Congress and the public over the myriad of small projects. Large projects are often the best research investment that can be made, but before this conclusion is reached in any specific field, a careful analysis should be carried out of the potential impact that funding of such a project or projects is likely to have on the overall productivity of research supported by NSF in that field. There is no overall answer to the balance question, because it differs from field to field and will vary over time within each field in response to new discoveries and the availability of new instrumentation. We believe that it is desirable to find new strategies for dealing with major awards that take into account the increasing interrelatedness of big and small modes of research. Such strategies probably would involve field-level reviews of all modes taken together. The recent National Research Council (1991) report, The Decade of Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics, supported by NSF, was such an effort; it looked comprehensively at the maintenance and upgrading of existing facilities, the need for new initiatives, and individual project support and training of new researchers within a specific area of science. In an earlier example, planning conducted jointly by NSF with the earth sciences research community resulted in the Continental Lithosphere Program. The program balanced big science facilities, such as the global seismic array and the continental scientific drilling program, with support for individual investigators to use those facilities and conduct complementary, small-scale research in the field. This approach also
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Major Award Decisionmaking at the National Science Foundation helps meet the need to use systematic field-by-field assessments for setting budget priorities (NAS, 1989) and measuring national performance in research (NAS, 1993: Ch.3). In thinking about major projects, NSF and NSB should consider using regular and comprehensive peer reviews of research fields more widely to determine the appropriate interactions among modes of research and the most productive role of major projects within the fields. Major awards should then be justified on the basis of whether or not they contribute to the most productive mix of research and the overall health of the research field. In this way, the overall strategy for a field would be more consistent internally, more understandable to the affected research community, and also more intelligible to the public and its elected officials who ultimately bear the responsibility for investment in research. At the same time, NSF and NSB should be ready to change plans flexibly in light of new developments. Planning assumptions in a fast-moving field of research become obsolete quickly as they are altered by the progress of research. Field reviews should be periodic and adjusted regularly as part of NSF-NSB's long-range and annual planning process. Each major project should always receive special scrutiny because, although it may provide unique opportunities to conduct certain kinds of research, it reduces NSF's flexibility to fund research opportunities that did not even exist when the project was approved.
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