Last week, the National Science Foundation announced a new partnership with the Institute for Progress aiming to improve how the agency supports research and innovation. The agreement highlights the opportunity for government R&D agencies to review their processes for awarding grants to increase their return on investment, offering another glimmer of hope that improvements may be coming to the federal R&D enterprise. This partnership may not only offer a model for basic science funding but also have applications for education R&D.
The NSF-IFP partnership answers a requirement in the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act to consider alternative approaches to the agency’s traditional approach to funding R&D projects. NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan commented on the agreement:
The NSF merit review process is the gold standard for evaluating the most promising research. We know there are always ways to improve, and these 'science of science' experiments will allow us to test new mechanisms to accelerate decision making. The results will enhance how NSF makes investments by reducing turnaround time on final decisions, allowing greater flexibility in pivoting projects toward maximal impacts, and developing new pathways for researchers.
Through an “other transaction agreement,” IFP, a think tank focused on “accelerating scientific, technological, and industrial progress,” will provide expertise at no cost to NSF to help the agency better understand how it can increase the impact of its research spending. This new partnership will support the agency in its efforts to conduct experiments and identify new ways to fund and manage R&D projects.
For those of us following education R&D, the new partnership is an encouraging sign that federal agencies and Congress are looking for ways to increase the return on investment of R&D expenditures. As Melissa Moritz, of the Federation of American Scientists, and I wrote earlier this year,
Our analysis of federal STEM education and education R&D programs shows that there is significant federal activity aimed at improving STEM education and national competitiveness. However, consistent with past reviews of these federal initiatives, it remains unclear whether and to what extent these initiatives are advancing national goals. For example, most federal education R&D projects focused on improving STEM education have not been effectively analyzed and reported on to identify potential lessons learned and promote best practices for education stakeholders.
Looking forward, the Department of Education would also benefit from more analysis and transparency to increase the return on investment from the more than $1 billion that Congress spends on the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and the Education Innovation and Research program. IES is already exploring ways to fund breakthrough innovations in education R&D with the establishment of a new National Center for Advanced Development in Education, which is intended to be a DARPA-like center for innovation for education.
But IES and the Department of Education should also consider establishing similar partnerships with non-governmental experts to review their processes for awarding research grants, analyzing the impact of the projects they have been funding over the past decade, and identifying opportunities to improve the value of these expenditures for students, teachers, and other education stakeholders.
IES and the Department of Education could presumably initiate these kinds of collaborations using existing authorities. But Congress should also direct IES and the Department to identify new ways to improve the value of R&D expenditures. In April, the Senate HELP Committee announced that it was planning to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act. Lawmakers should include language requiring IES and the Department of Education to engage with experts outside government and explore new models for funding and leveraging education R&D expenditures, among many other needed reforms to the law.
The United States faces many challenges in K-12 education, including ensuring that all children have equal access to a high-quality education, and cultivating the talent to maintain American competitiveness and security. Congress and federal bodies such as NSF and the Department of Education have a responsibility to ensure that federal education R&D initiatives are actually helping students learn.