Science agencies rally behind GPRA

Representatives from civilian science agencies that have begun implementing the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) said they believe the act will strengthen their research efforts, although they face hurdles integrating the act into the budget process.

The civilian officials appeared earlier this month before the House Science Committee at a hearing to gauge their progress in adopting the law. GPRA will go into effect Aug. 3, but agencies have already begun designing strategic plans in accordance with the law.

Every one of the six agency officials at the hearing said the act, which attempts to improve federal programs by shifting their focus to performance-based planning and budgeting, will aid their research efforts.

Marc Chupka, acting assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the Energy Department, told committee members that the law "makes good business sense." Diana Josephson, deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said "the entire process has had a reinvigorating effect" on her agency.

Ernest Moriz, associate director for science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said agencies that have been experimenting with GPRA have already showed signs of boosting the effectiveness of their research projects.

"The idea of having a clear, long-range-based approach is very helpful," he said.

But agencies also expressed concern about how to work GPRA principles into their budgets, assessing the cost of implementing the act and applying performance-based goals across a range of projects that require different methods for measuring output.

Anne Petersen, deputy director of the National Science Foundation, said her agency often cannot predict the long-term results of fundamental research projects and that particular lines of research may require major funding long before they produce any economical results.

Petersen also said research programs do not produce the kind of long-term outcomes that GPRA would require the agency to measure. If NSF focused on measurable results, such as the number of times the agency published its work in science journals, people would not be able to devote attention to larger goals to expand scientific knowledge, she said.

Richard Zare, a Stanford University professor who worked on a National Research Council report on restructuring government research programs, agreed that agencies cannot rely on "quantitative measures" when making funding decisions. He said relying on numbers would result in agencies becoming fixated on the measurements themselves instead of "the best and most exciting science."

The committee's ranking minority member, Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.), also said he had some doubts about the act's ability to help agencies advance scientific research. He said agencies will need to find "nonquantitative" methods of measuring the success of their programs.

"In many ways, I think [GPRA] is just sand in the wheels of the process," Brown said. "I'm a skeptic about ...whether it is ever possible to quantify accountability."

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