A number of approaches are used to decide which R&D projects receive federal funds, how much should be spent, and who should conduct the work. The approach used depends on the nature of the work, its relationship to specific government missions, and the history and culture of different research communities, programs, and agencies.

Traditionally, agencies such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health that make grants to universities to support fundamental scientific and engineering research have used some form of prospective peer review to judge the quality of competitively submitted project proposals. Peers are established working scientists or engineers from diverse research institutions who are deeply knowledgeable about the field of study and who provide disinterested technical judgments as to the competence of the researchers, the scientific significance of the proposed work, the soundness of the research plan, and the likelihood of success. Since the early 1980s, NSF has asked peers also to take into account the utility of the proposed research to the nation and its potential for contributing to graduate education and to the infrastructure of science itself. Since the middle 1980s, NSF has used the term merit review to indicate both that proposals are judged on their merits and that NSF program officers also have the authority to take into account various general policies of the Foundation when making awards. NIH makes limited use of a second level of review by institute councils that take into account national relevance and direction. Some programs in other departments and agencies, including the Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Department of Defense, employ variants of peer or merit review. The various departments and agencies differ in the degree to which their program managers are bound to follow the recommendations of peer and merit reviewers in making awards. Practices vary even within the NSF and NIH across research fields and areas.

Other agencies, including the Office of Naval Research and Advanced Research Projects Agency, use a strong program manager approach to prospective assessment of the scientific or technical merit of research proposals, particularly those that are of a more fundamental nature. Strong technical staff members have responsibility for being well informed about the state of the art of their specialties and for identifying and recruiting investigators to conduct research that they deem to be of greatest importance to the agency's mission. Program managers often devote considerable energy to soliciting the views of peers about these matters but usually are not bound to heed their advice.

Agencies seeking to contract for performance of R&D projects of direct interest to the government in industrial or other nongovernment organizations typically conduct competitive procurements for R&D services, using government technical employees and, occasionally, consultants to judge the prospective merit of contract proposals. This approach has much in common with standard procedures used by the federal government to procure other goods and services.

Federal laboratories use several approaches to project selection. In most cases, however, on-site technical and unit managers share responsibility with agency program managers for selecting project topics and performers. In some cases, the external peer community is asked for advice on specific projects, and in other cases, on an entire program of activity. Sometimes such advice is obtained on a prospective basis; sometimes it is obtained via formal reviews of ongoing or completed research activities. In some agencies and some programs, proposals to begin new projects at the federal laboratories compete across several laboratories or even with proposals submitted from academia or industry.

Formula funding is used by a few programs, principally in the USDA, to allocate R&D funds among performing institutions such as the land-grant colleges and universities.

Executive agency decisions about R&D allocations to institutions and projects have increasingly been specified in detail by congressional appropriations committees. These allocations often do not reflect the considered judgments of scientific experts or the funding agencies, and they often are determined instead by individual members of Congress acting on behalf of constituents.

From: Supplement 3: Current Processes for Allocating Federal R&D Funds

Cover of Allocating Federal Funds for Science and Technology
Allocating Federal Funds for Science and Technology.
National Academy of Sciences (US) Committee on Criteria for Federal Support of Research and Development.
Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1995.
Copyright © 1995, National Academy of Sciences.

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