Letters And Testimony


Improving the National Science Foundation's R&D

letters and testimony

Improving the National Science Foundation's R&D

May 16, 2024

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Today, I submitted written testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. Click here to download a pdf of the testimony.

Chair Shaheen, Ranking Member Moran, and Members of the Subcommittee:

My name is Robert Bellafiore, and I am Research Manager at the Foundation for American Innovation, a think tank focused on promoting innovation, strengthening governance, and advancing national security. I am writing to recommend that the Subcommittee direct the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve its reporting about the outcomes of its education research and development (R&D) programs.

The mission of NSF’s Directorate for STEM Education is to “develop a well-informed citizenry and a diverse and capable workforce of scientists, technicians, engineers, mathematicians and educators.” NSF’s Technology Innovation and Partnerships Directorate (TIP) “creates breakthrough technologies; meets societal and economic needs; leads to new, high-wage jobs; and empowers all Americans to participate in the U.S. research and innovation enterprise.” According to the FY2025 budget request, NSF has requested $1.3 billion for the STEM Education Directorate and $900 million for the TIP Directorate.

These are significant expenditures on programs that should be improving students’ learning opportunities and our national competitiveness. However, a 2023 review by my colleague of NSF-funded STEM education R&D programs found that NSF did not have transparent reporting about R&D outcomes or consistently identify best practices or ways that educators and others could learn from or implement research findings. Furthermore, another review of federal education R&D activities to improve STEM and computer science found that they have little evidence of success, often because such projects have not been effectively analyzed to identify and promote best practices. Many of these programs simply have little to show for them—both because the R&D activities themselves are often ineffective, and because useful insights are often not implemented in the classroom.

There is widespread recognition within the federal government of the need to improve the transparency and accountability of STEM education initiatives, which are dispersed throughout the federal government. For example, the Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM), established in 2011, has the mission to “coordinate Federal programs and activities in support of STEM education.” Last month, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)’s progress report on the implementation of the federal government’s STEM education strategic plan noted that “sharing performance outcomes enhances public trust, supports coordinated policymaking, and promotes efficient use of resources.”

To improve the return on investment on NSF’s R&D efforts, the Subcommittee should recommend that Congress commission the Government Accountability Office to audit these R&D programs to determine which are fulfilling their mission and which are wasting taxpayer funds. Congress should then eliminate any programs found to be ineffective. As the research cited above shows, some R&D initiatives are ineffective simply by virtue of not accomplishing anything valuable; however, other initiatives are likely to be ineffective by virtue of their duplication of efforts in other parts of the federal government. A priority of GAO’s audit should therefore be the identification of redundant R&D efforts across agencies. NSF is one of 19 member agencies listed in CoSTEM’s recent report; any collaboration with this many members, no matter how well coordinated, is likely to have significant inefficiencies and repetition.

The Subcommittee should also recommend that NSF address GAO’s 14 open recommendations for NSF, which, while not narrowly tied to education R&D, offer important nonpartisan opportunities to improve governance, operations, and efficiency at NSF.

Furthermore, to improve transparency, the Subcommittee should include in its report accompanying the FY2025 funding bill language requiring NSF to publicly report on its website the outcomes of its education R&D projects, identify what has worked, and promote best practices for parents, teachers, schools, and other education stakeholders. This recommendation is in line with CoSTEM’s objective to “Make Program Performance and Outcomes Publicly Available.” Education R&D is only of value if it is ultimately carried into the classroom and used to inform how children are taught. However, aside from a database of past grant awards and current grant funding available, there is limited information on NSF’s website about the outcomes of most of its funded R&D projects. NSF could help inform Congress and the public by providing an annual review of past and future STEM research projects funded, identifying lessons learned and best practices or tools that education stakeholders may use. Additionally, the Subcommittee should require the STEM Education and TIP Directorates to submit to Congress and publish on NSF’s website an annual report detailing all of its funded R&D projects and identifying any lessons or best practices.

Improving transparency and reducing redundancy in education R&D programs are likely to be mutually reinforcing steps to improve these programs’ return on investment. When it is clearer what programs are accomplishing, it will be easier to identify duplicated efforts; and with less overlap, it will be easier to track what each R&D program is doing individually. As OSTP’s recent report notes, “Sharing investments can limit duplication and identify overlap.”


Although the longstanding challenges facing U.S. K-12 would already make it important to improve the federal government’s STEM education R&D efforts, the alarming trends precipitated by the pandemic—including declining scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress and record truancy rates—only make this task more vital. Improving the transparency of and accountability for federal education R&D will be essential for helping the nation’s students. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.

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