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GAO Releases Review of Federal Agency Policies on Foreign Interference in Research

On December 17, 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report reviewing the policies at five major federal research agencies intended to secure federally funded research from foreign interference. The five agencies under review, the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Energy (DOE), National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and National Science Foundation (NSF), were evaluated on their existing policies requiring researchers to disclose foreign conflicts of interest – including non-financial conflicts of interest such as honorary appointments – and their procedures for addressing failures to disclose these conflicts of interest.

Findings from the report showed that most agencies have taken some actions to improve research security, although noticeable gaps existed in the disclosure policies of non-financial conflicts of interest and the disciplinary procedures for failure to disclose conflicts of interest. The report makes nine recommendations to federal agencies to improve research security policies. Each of the agencies receiving recommendations agreed with GAO’s assessment except for NSF, which neither agreed nor disagreed but still identified actions it would take to address the recommendations.

The recommendations are:

  • The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should issue pending guidance and expedite the guidance process for research security issues.
  • DOD should develop an agency-wide policy on conflicts of interest for grants.
  • DOD should document the procedure to address failures to disclose conflicts of interests.
  • DOE should develop an agency-wide policy on conflicts of interest for grants.
  • DOE should document the procedure to address failures to disclose conflicts of interests.
  • NIH should update their policies to include a definition of non-financial conflicts of interest.
  • NASA should update their policies to include a definition of non-financial conflicts of interest.
  • NASA should document the procedure to address failures to disclose conflicts of interests.
  • NSF should update their policies to include a definition of non-financial conflicts of interest.

COSSA released two HOT TOPIC pieces in January 2020 and October 2020 providing detailed summaries of recent developments in research security policies. The GAO report is available in full on the GAO website.

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Posted in Issue 1 (January 5), Update, Volume 40 (2021)

GAO to Study Potential Federal Interference in Science

According the Washington Post, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will undertake a study of federal agencies’ scientific integrity policies and potential federal interference in the scientific process at the request of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). Nelson, the Ranking Member on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, made the request in a letter dated September 25, 2017. Citing concerns stemming from reports of possible interference in the scientific process at the Environmental Protection Agency, changes to agencies’ public information related to climate change, and the cancellation of a study that might be damaging to the fossil fuel industry, Nelson asked the GAO to assess whether “the administration has violated scientific integrity policies by suppressing federally funded science, interfering with research grant activities, interfering in typical scientific processes, or restricting the freedom of federal scientists to communicate findings with the public.” While GAO agreed to Nelson’s request, it does not expect to begin work on the study for about four months, due to limited resources. The American Institute of Physics has published a more in-depth look at some of the context surrounding Nelson’s request.

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Posted in Issue 21 (October 31), Update, Volume 36 (2017)

GAO Report on Firearm Storage Highlights Lack of Federal Funding for Gun Research

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report entitled Personal Firearms: Programs that Promote Safe Storage and Research on Their Effectiveness that compiles information on public and non-profit programs promoting safe storage of personal firearms and the results of research on the effectiveness of such programs. The report was produced at the request of 19 Democratic senators, including Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). The report finds that “there is relatively little research on safe firearm storage,” and that “lack of funding and data” is often cited as a primary reason. According to the report, funding shortages and instability has limited the research on firearm safety and storage that could have been conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The report cites an analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that compared available funding and publication volume for research on various leading causes of death and found that “research on firearms receives disproportionately low funding and has fewer publications compared to other top causes of death.” The lack of funding can lead to shortage of expertise in the field. One researcher interviewed told the GAO that “he discourages new students from firearm research exclusively because they will not be able to make a living in that research area alone.” Further, a shortage of high-quality data on firearms exacerbates the difficulty of conducting research in this area. The CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) has not included questions related to firearm safety since 2004. However, the CDC does plan to add a module on firearms in the 2017 survey, on the recommendation of the National Academy of Medicine.

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Posted in Issue 21 (October 31), Update, Volume 36 (2017)

GAO Recommends Changes to NSF Indirect Cost Guidance

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Actions Needed to Improve Oversight of Indirect Costs for Research, finds that the National Science Foundation (NSF) “does not consistently take steps to ensure it pays no more than its fair share of indirect costs.” Indirect costs, also referred to as facilities and administrative (F&A) costs, represent the portion of NSF awards that cover operational costs, such as maintenance, rent, and utilities. The report notes that while NSF has produced guidance for setting indirect cost rates, it is not implemented consistently. The report makes recommendations to ensure NSF staff follow its guidance more reliably, better document the process of setting indirect cost rates, and maintain consistency with the guidance set by other federal agencies. In a letter responding to the report (Appendix I), NSF concurred with GAO’s recommendations and outlined the steps it will take to implement them. The complete report and a highlights page are available on GAO’s website.

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Posted in Issue 19 (October 3), Update, Volume 36 (2017)

GAO: Agencies Involved in the Indirect Cost Rate-Setting Process Need to Improve Controls

A September 7 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, NIH Biomedical Research: Agencies Involved in the Indirect Cost Rate-Setting Process Need to Improve Controls (GAO-16-616), includes 12 recommendations for the Department of Health and Human Service’s Cost Allocation Services, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Division of Financial Advisory Services, and the Department of Defense’s Office of Naval Research. According to GAO, the recommendations are designed to improve controls over the agency’s indirect cost rate process. GAO was asked to “review the internal controls for overseeing the validity of indirect cost rates for NIH’s research organization.” The study was initiated by Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Fred Upton (R-WI) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Tim Murphy (R-PA).

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Posted in Issue 19 (October 4), Update, Volume 35 (2016)

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