This agency got so much extra funding, it has to reorganize

The National Science Foundation, as listeners of this podcast heard from director Sethuraman Panchanathan the other day, received a new billion dollars in fundi...

The National Science Foundation, as listeners of this podcast heard from director Sethuraman Panchanathan the other day, received a new billion dollars in funding from the Chips Act. To help deal with a record budget, NSF is adding a new office called the Office of Business Information Technology Services, or BITS. For the details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin  spoke with NSF Chief Operating Officer Karen Marrongelle.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin This new office, what will it do? It sounds like information technology and data management and a lot of things.

Karen Marrongelle Yes, that’s right. So the information technology innovation data are essentially critical. As we begin to experience significant growth, at the National Science Foundation, fueled in part by the new chips and science legislation and our record funding in fiscal year 23. We’re expanding quickly as an agency, and we really need to position ourselves with the right structure and the right resources so that we can continue to provide outstanding information technology services, to both our staff, and the external research community. So we had recommendations coming to us from two internal business groups that helped launch our internal discussions outlining this type of restructuring. We have an evidence and data governance steering committee within NSF, and they recommended some centralized data analytics services for the agency. And those are going to function more smoothly as they’re paired with an integrated I.T. and data management strategy under one organization.

Tom Temin Now, let me stop you there for a second. The NSF has had a CIO for a long time, though, right?

Karen Marrongelle Yes, that is correct.

Tom Temin So is this more a function of being able to manage all of the new grants channels and all of the new, mostly grant spending? That’s what NSF typically or principally does. So is it just that the volume, as such, that you need more structure to keep track of everything?

Karen Marrongelle Yeah. So we have seen both an increase in volume, but an increase in expectation for how we’re analyzing data about who we’re funding, what we’re funding, and then more of a press on innovations in technology. So we’ve all heard about the recent advances in AI with ChatGPT and the new Bing chatbot. We need to really be ahead of the curve on how we’re integrating technologies like AI and other innovations into our everyday workplace.

Tom Temin And we use AI to evaluate grants applications to make sure they weren’t generated by one of these terrible machines. That will sound great, but there might be nobody behind it.

Karen Marrongelle Well, we’re going to need to deal with that. So, yes, this is absolutely something that needs to be integrated in this new organization.

Tom Temin And is there already a chief data officer at NSF? Or will you be adding that or it’ll be integrated better with the CIO in some manner?

Karen Marrongelle That’s exactly right. We do have a chief data officer, and we’re going to be integrating all of those services under this new business information technology, which is our tentative name under this new organization. Really, there’s been a lot decentralized at NSF, and we’re looking to create efficiencies and a tighter vision by bringing these all together under this one organization.

Tom Temin I guess, with so many people giving so many grants at such dollar levels, there is the possibility of maybe duplication of effort, and therefore kind of by definition, the dollars don’t go as far as they could.

Karen Marrongelle Yeah, that’s right, Tom. It is something that we keep track of already, today. But we can certainly beef up the analytics to ensure that we are spending the precious dollars that we have, really,  in the most efficient and effective ways possible.

Tom Temin Let me ask you this. I imagine you’re hiring a lot of people, because that’s what agencies mean when they grow, because you need people to do this. Is there any way that this office can aid in the talent management topic? To make sure you get the right people that can understand the granting and etc. Because you’re competing with industry that’s also being funded under the same law.

Karen Marrongelle Yeah, the position is going to establish the strategic direction and certainly provide that leadership in the formulation, development and execution of of all of NSF’s I.T. management programs. And so that could certainly spill into how we are evaluating candidates for the critical positions and the needs that we have. Really, the top priorities for this position are improving our mission delivery and performance by maximizing new technologies, existing technologies and data systems. To really help the agency formulate our policies, positions and our responses to current and emerging information technology.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Dr. Karen Marrongelle, she is chief operating officer of the National Science Foundation. And just, if you would, put yourself in the position of someone making a grant in one of the NSF, I’m calling them channels, but domains that, in which you make grants. If I am a granting manager, what can I look to the new office BITS, to help me in my job?

Karen Marrongelle Yeah, sure. So for our PI’s, our principal investigators, and I used to be one. What we’re hoping for is a more streamlined process for those who are applying to the NSF. And really, the doors are wide open. They are for what we can continue to provide to our community, but really expanding the offerings. And then on the internal side, for our program officers and staff who manage our vast array of grants. Again, access to data is critically important, but really bringing new tools to bear to our work environments in how we manage and better manage the grants that we give out.

Tom Temin And are there standardized metrics to grants or grantee performance, such that can all be rolled up into some kind of a dashboard? That’s a great word. I haven’t asked you about cloud yet, but let’s talk about dashboards. Everybody does. And can a subject matter expert or grant maker or, you use the other word that you actually call those people. Can they see how did these people do the last time? Or how do they compare with other grantees in the same general domain?

Karen Marrongelle Yeah. So every grantees is required to submit reports annually. And those data right now, there’s a lot of manual work that has to get into how we pull data from those reports. So there’s a lot there that can be improved upon, streamlined, so that data can really feed into the decision makers, the program officers and others who are making decisions. And since one of NSF’s primary goals right now, is what we call reaching the missing millions, really increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce. This is critically important that we have the type of data to help us understand how we’re making progress along those metrics, in the work that we’re funding.

Tom Temin But there’s also a danger in that, and that you don’t want grant making on the basis of, say, race or the basis of something other than the quality of the application.

Karen Marrongelle Precisely. And I think we have so many checks and balances in place. We really do have the gold standard of grant review and grant making that is replicated, really throughout the world. But you’re absolutely right, Tom.

Tom Temin On the other hand, there’s the assumption that there are many, would be grant receivers at, say, HBCU’s or Historically Hispanic Speaking Institutions, that simply aren’t there yet and you need to attract them into the ecosystem.

Karen Marrongelle That’s right. And that technology is going to help us both do better types of outreach. But also, again, keep us honest in how we’re making progress towards those goals.

Tom Temin All right. And it sounds like there’s a bit of IT modernization that has to happen, some technology infusion that you need.

Karen Marrongelle Yeah, absolutely. So, we have been really at the vanguard, in so many ways, at the National Science Foundation. We want to ensure that we’re staying at that vanguard, in both the services that we’re providing to our own staff and to the communities. So innovation is really the name of the game. That’s a really important component of what we’re looking for in the leader to lead this new organization.

Tom Temin And you are in the search for a CIO. Is that the person you mean? Or will be somebody at the BITS directors?

Karen Marrongelle Yeah. So the person leading the new business Information Technology organization will be a senior executive service position, at NSF.  And they’ll serve as the head of our tentatively named Office of Business Information Technology Services. The person will also hold the titles of director and chief technology officer and chief information officer. And I’ll just point out that we are currently recruiting for this position. So your listeners are exactly the audience that we hope to reach, and the position closes on March 6.


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