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March 4, 2002
Volume 80, Number 9
CENEAR 80 9 p. 10
ISSN 0009-2347
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OMB presents proposed criteria to wary audience of interested parties


To defuse brewing concerns about its proposed criteria for evaluating federal R&D programs, the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB) asked the National Academies to sponsor a daylong workshop on the topic last week in Washington, D.C.

The depth of that concern was evident in the workshop's standing-room-only attendance of more than 150 people, including top Administration officials, leaders of federal R&D agencies, key congressional staff, and academics with more than a passing interest in this evolving science policy issue.

"This Administration is committed to serious stewardship of public resources," said OMB Director Mitch Daniels. Indeed, in the federal budget for fiscal 2003 that the Bush Administration submitted to Congress last month (C&EN, Feb. 11, page 5), OMB included an evaluation of applied research programs at the Department of Energy based on three criteria: quality, relevance, and performance. The workshop was a first step toward fleshing out these broad criteria for application by individual agencies.

A wide range of opinions and concerns about any attempt to evaluate federal R&D programs, especially basic research programs, was expressed during the workshop. Sentiments ranged from the opinion that evaluating federal R&D programs is a waste of time to an attitude of cautious optimism.

Most researchers believe that a common ground could be created for planning and evaluating R&D programs at the agencies. Yet they claim the task should be approached carefully, in a way that does not stifle risk-taking by agency leaders or scientists who receive federal funds.

The OMB criteria are similar to those being developed by Congress and the agencies in response to the 1993 Government Performance & Results Act (GPRA). That legislation has evolved to a stage where agencies will soon have their appropriations tied to GPRA-defined performance standards. It has been a particularly challenging exercise for R&D agencies, which have struggled to develop metrics for such missions as "developing new knowledge" at the frontiers of various science disciplines. Meeting the OMB criteria is expected to be at least as challenging.

The academies--through their prestigious Committee on Science, Engineering & Public Policy (COSEPUP)-- have been key players in both studying the issue of R&D performance metrics and assisting agencies with the task of developing GPRA performance metrics. It was that expertise that led OMB to turn to COSEPUP as a moderator for introducing its pitch for evaluating federal R&D programs.

Evaluating federal R&D programs is "a work in progress," said workshop cochair and COSEPUP member Alan Schriesheim, who is director emeritus of Argonne National Laboratory. He described the workshop as "a way to get everyone--OMB, Congress, the agencies--all using a common language."

Schriesheim, who cochaired the workshop with Enriqueta C. Bond, president of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, acknowledged the range of opinion. Still, he said, most people, including agency leaders, believe that GPRA--and now OMB's proposed criteria--is helping agencies with the crucial task of defining their missions.

Michael J. Holland, another OMB official, described the performance evaluations as a way to "raise the level of discourse" between OMB and agency managers. All too often, he said, the extent of that dialogue is a presentation of the agency's previous-year budget and a request for funding above that level.

President George W. Bush's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, hailed the level of interest in the workshop. Performance metrics can be tied to the process of science itself, he said, with the goal of continual improvement. The process, he said, "suggests there is a way to choose problems that are fruitful for all of science."


HOT TOPIC Schriesheim (left) and Bond cochaired a standing-room-only meeting on criteria for evaluating federal R&D programs.

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