The NSF Context for Assessing the Value of Research

GPRA requires the development of a strategic plan that guides annual performance plans and reports. Key factors of the strategic plan are statements of mission and general goals. These provide the context for assessing agency performance. NSF's continuing mission is stated in the preamble to the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 (Public Law 810507): ''To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes."

GPRA authorizes and directs NSF to initiate and support the following:

  •  Basic scientific research and research fundamental to the engineering process,
  •  Programs to strengthen scientific and engineering research potential,
  •  Science and engineering education programs at all levels and in all the various fields of science and engineering, and
  •  An information base for science and engineering appropriate for development of national and international policy.

NSF works toward its mission through the support of research, infrastructure development, and education and training, largely at academic institutions. When we assess our programs, we are thus assessing the results and outcomes of the investments we make. We examine the outcomes of aggregate collections of awards over time frames appropriate to our expectations for results.

NSF has established its outcome goals by determining what types of observable outcomes from its programs advance the progress of science and engineering. These include:

  •  Discoveries at and across the frontier of science and engineering;
  •  Connections between discoveries and their use in service to society;
  •  A diverse, globally oriented work force of scientists and engineers;
  •  Improved achievement in mathematics and science skills needed by all Americans; and
  •  Meaningful information on the national and international science and engineering enterprise.

The first three outcome goals are most relevant to the assessment of research and are the focus of the remainder of this discussion.

Assessing Progress Toward Outcome Goals

Because the timing of outcomes from NSF's activities is unpredictable and annual change in the award outputs is not an accurate indicator of progress toward outcome goals, NSF has developed performance goals for outcomes against which we expect to assess progress on a continuing basis. The stream of data and information on the products of NSF's investments will be combined with the expert judgment of external panels to assess NSF's performance over time and to provide a management tool for initiating changes in direction, where needed.

These continuing performance goals take advantage of GPRA's option for the use of an alternative format where quantitative annual performance goals are impossible or inappropriate. They are based on descriptive standards that convey the characteristics of the types of results NSF seeks. The successful performance standards for the outcome goals most closely related to valuing research are listed below.

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