America COMPETES Act:

It Is Too Early to Evaluate Programs Long-Term Effectiveness, but Agencies Could Improve Reporting of High-Risk, High-Reward Research Priorities

GAO-11-127R: Published: Oct 7, 2010. Publicly Released: Oct 7, 2010.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Franklin W. Rusco
(202) 512-4597
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Scientific and technological innovation and a workforce educated in advanced technology are critical to the long-term economic competitiveness and prosperity of the United States. In recent years, leaders in government, business, and education have reported their concerns that declining federal funding for basic scientific research could diminish the United States' future economic competitiveness. These leaders have also reported their concerns that our educational system is producing too few students trained in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), which they believe may drive jobs in technical fields--followed by jobs in manufacturing, administration, and finance--from the United States to other countries. Congress passed the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act (COMPETES Act) of 2007 with the overall goal of increasing federal investment in scientific research to improve U.S. economic competitiveness. To that end, the act also increased support for education in STEM fields. Specifically, the act authorized $33.6 billion from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2010, in appropriations to be spent by four federal agencies: (1) the Department of Education, (2) the Department of Energy (DOE), (3) the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) within the Department of Commerce, and (4) the National Science Foundation (NSF). Within these four agencies, the act authorized funding for 24 new programs and the expansion of 20 existing programs to increase federal investment in basic scientific research and STEM education in the United States. The act also authorized the establishment of a new agency--the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)--within DOE to support transformational energy technology research projects to enhance the country's economic and energy security. In addition, the act established specific goals for some of the individual programs and includes a number of reporting provisions. Section 1008 of the act expresses the sense of Congress that each executive agency conducting research in STEM fields should strive to support and promote innovation by setting a goal of allocating an appropriate percentage of its basic research budget toward funding high-risk, high-reward research. The act describes high-risk, high-reward research projects as those that should also (1) meet fundamental scientific or technical challenges, (2) involve multidisciplinary work, and (3) involve a high degree of novelty. With respect to agencies conducting basic STEM research, the COMPETES Act provides for the following actions: (1) Goal setting--Agencies are annually required to report whether they have set a percentage funding goal for high-risk, high-reward research. (2) Spending toward goal--Agencies that set such a goal must report whether the goal is being met by the agencies and describe the activities funded. (3) Manner of reporting--Agencies are required to report this information to Congress along with documents supporting their annual budget. The COMPETES Act requires GAO to evaluate, within 3 years following its enactment, the effectiveness of authorized programs. To satisfy this reporting requirement, we briefed your staffs on the results of our work on August 5, 2010, and this report provides additional details. Our reporting objectives for this review were to examine (1) the extent to which the four agencies that received funding have obligated and reported funding for new or expanded programs and activities and (2) the effectiveness of the new or expanded programs and activities in meeting the goals of the act.

The four agencies that received funds authorized under the COMPETES Act obligated about $30 billion for new and expanded research and education programs and activities from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2010; scientific research obligations totaled about $27 billion and STEM education obligations totaled about $3 billion. Three of the four agencies we reviewed--DOE, NSF, and NIST--conducted basic scientific research. However, they did not consistently set a percentage funding goal to support high-risk, high-reward research--something that Congress provided they should do. In addition, two of these three agencies did not report this information with their annual budget submissions, as the law provides. Agency officials provided us with information indicating that they faced challenges in defining such research, and as a result, each program applied the criteria in the act differently. In addition, the directors of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) jointly issued a memo in August 2009 specifying that agencies conducting science research should explain in their budget submissions how they will support such activities and cooperate with them to develop datasets on federal science and technology investments, although this memorandum did not direct agencies on how to do so or direct them to set a percentage goal. Results in Brief Because the new programs authorized and funded under the COMPETES Act have only recently received and obligated funding, and because of the difficulties we and others have reported as being inherent in measuring outcomes of research and educational programs, it is too early to assess the effectiveness of these programs. However, all four of the agencies we reviewed are taking steps to oversee the implementation of various projects and monitor their progress. For example, the agencies are collecting various types of project data to monitor progress toward cost, schedule, and program outputs. We are recommending that DOE, NSF, and NIST each set a goal for funding high-risk, high-reward research and that the agencies coordinate in doing so. We are also recommending that the agencies include information on high-risk, high-reward research with their annual budget requests, which are available to the public. In commenting on our draft report, Commerce agreed with both recommendations and NSF agreed with the recommendation to report to Congress. Additionally, OSTP, DOE, and NSF expressed concerns about aspects of our recommendation that agencies funded under the COMPETES Act identify a percentage goal for funding high-risk, high-reward research. Despite these concerns, we believe that agencies should seek to provide the information, as expressed in the sense of the Congress as provided in the act, and therefore believe this recommendation remains valid.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation, should each report this information as part of their annual budget submissions to Congress--which are available to the public--as provided by the act.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation, should each report this information as part of their annual budget submissions to Congress--which are available to the public--as provided by the act.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation should each establish a percentage goal to fund high-risk, high-reward research, and in setting a goal, cooperate and coordinate with other agencies funded under the COMPETES Act that perform basic scientific research--as well as OMB and OSTP--to more clearly define and identify these research activities.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation should each establish a percentage goal to fund high-risk, high-reward research, and in setting a goal, cooperate and coordinate with other agencies funded under the COMPETES Act that perform basic scientific research--as well as OMB and OSTP--to more clearly define and identify these research activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation should each establish a percentage goal to fund high-risk, high-reward research, and in setting a goal, cooperate and coordinate with other agencies funded under the COMPETES Act that perform basic scientific research--as well as OMB and OSTP--to more clearly define and identify these research activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To better inform Congress regarding spending priorities for high-risk, high-reward basic research, the Secretary of Commerce (by directing the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the Secretary of Energy, and the Acting Director of the National Science Foundation, should each report this information as part of their annual budget submissions to Congress--which are available to the public--as provided by the act.

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Apr 10, 2014

    Apr 8, 2014

    Apr 3, 2014

    Mar 31, 2014

    Mar 26, 2014

    Mar 25, 2014

    Looking for more? Browse all our products here