NSF’s Final Review and the Future of Research in UPR

By: Leonardo Rodríguez-Negrón

Almost three years after the National Science Foundation (NSF) first inquired about the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) time and effort reporting system, a final decision regarding suspension of funds is around the corner. To put events in perspective, a chronological review of events based on official communications between the NSF and UPR is presented, analyzing the effects on research and graduate programs of a possible debarment by the NSF.

February 1-12, 2010: NSF staff visits to UPR Central Administration and Mayagüez Campus.

May 24, 2010: In a letter directed to Dr. Héctor Santiago Anandón, UPR’s Acting Vice President of Research and Technology, NSF included site visit’s findings and recommendations, requesting a Correcting Action Plan (CAP) from the UPR. 

November 5, 2010: UPR’s Corrective Action Plan was submitted for NSF approval. UPR proposed a time frame of 1 year to address NSF’s inquires.

February 3, 2011: NSF notified Dr. José Lasalde, Vice President of Research and Technology, the approval of UPR’s CAP. “Failure to demonstrate sufficient progress may result in NSF taking administrative action, including reducing, suspending or terminating the awards.

 August 8, 2011: Because of its inability to follow the CAP, UPR was placed under special payments, i.e., payments on a reimbursement basis only. As of this date, the UPR is unable to request funds in advance for existing projects. 

 February 3, 2012: In a formal notification addressed to Dr. Miguel Muñoz, President of the University of Puerto Rico, NSF stipulated that all deficiencies must be corrected by April 1, 2012. 

March 15, 2012: Dr. Muñoz issued a letter to campus chancellors informing the approval of Certifications 14 & 15 of 2011-2012 by the UPR Board of Trustees. Such Certifications specified new regulations regarding time and effort reporting systems, approved on September 19 and 20, 2011, respectively, and effective immediately. 

April 23, 2012: After 23 days of the original deadline imposed by NSF, an initial 60-day suspension of funds resulted from UPR’s inability to correct inquires about its time and effort reporting system.

April 27, 2012: Via an open letter to the entire UPR community, Dr. Muñoz announced NSF’s suspension of funds. Funded projects were kept up and running via a loan from the Government Developed Bank of Puerto Rico. According to the UPRM Engineering Faculty Resolution of February 5, 2013 this is the first time the NSF situation is openly discussed with the UPR community.

June 21, 2012: Recognizing UPR’s advance in complying policies and procedures regarding the time and effort reporting system, NSF decided to extend the suspension (instead of a full debarment) until full compliance is achieved. 

August 10, 2012: In response to a letter issued on August 1, 2012 by Dr. Muñoz requesting an update about the status of the suspension, the NSF issued an official document stating “The analysis that NSF was able to conduct on UPR’s most recent special payments requests and supporting documentation reveals that, despite incremental progress, UPR’s time and effort reporting system cannot be considered fully compliant.

September 15, 2012: A report from the Ad-Hoc Committee (created on May 22, 2012 by the UPRM Academic Senate to study the time and effort reporting system) stated:

  • President Dr. Muñoz has not authorized the circulation of the Corrective Action Plan (submitted on November 5, 2011 and approved on February 3, 2012).
  • The suspension of NSF funding might serve as a trigger for other federal agencies to take similar actions.
  • UPR administrator’s lack of transparency and withholding of information are against the best interest of the institution. 

October 2012:  According to the UPRM Engineering Faculty Resolution of February 5, 2013 the Corrective Action Plan (approved by the NSF on February 3, 2011) was made public.

The NSF Office of Inspector General (OIG) began an investigation of six NSF-funded projects in the UPR.

The UPR signed a contract with Drinker, Biddle & Reath law firm to provide legal consulting on affairs related with the NSF. Such contract expires on June 30, 2013 will not exceed $300,000.

February 1, 2013: After reviewing the latest documentation submitted by the UPR, the NSF concluded, “documentation does not sufficiently demonstrate that the UPR has implemented a time and effort system that is fully compliant”. The suspension remains in effect.

February 15, 2013: In response to the previous letter (February 1, 2013), UPR President Dr. Muñoz manifested his disagreements towards NSF’s most current decision of maintaining funding suspension. Nonetheless, he expressed himself looking forward to NSF’s staff visit originally scheduled to March 18, 2013.

Having reviewed the events leading to the current situation with NSF, it’s essential to consider the effects of a debarment on the UPR.

 Effects of a Debarment

Given UPR’s failure to comply with federal regulations during the last three years, a debarment of NSF funding is a possibility as the “final review” draws nearer. A debarment would exclude UPR from grants or contracts with the NSF for a period of up to three years. If a debarment occurs, UPR, specifically UPRM and Central Administration, will be put in the Excluded Parties List System (EPLS), a public database that identifies individual and businesses excluded from federal contracts, assistantship and benefits. Before awarding contracts or grants, officers are required to check the EPLS.

According to the UPRM Research and Development Center, for the fiscal year 2011-2012, UPRM had over $21 millions in NSF funding, representing 33% of federal funding and almost 20% of all external funding in campus. Federal funding sums up to over $67 million, which means that over 60% of the UPR external funding is at risk if debarment occurs. 

Image

UPRM entire external funding portfolio sums over $107 millions. Left: Federal funding divided by agency, NSF accounts for 34%. Right: Of the total external funding, federal funding sums 60%.

In case of a debarment, the most affected area will be research, and the graduate programs they support. Over $60 million dollars in research will be instantly lost. New research projects, graduate student assistantships, new publications and UPRM’s status as a primary research centers will be in jeopardy. A debarment would be a motivation for prospective graduate students and young investigators to consider other institutions.

For recently graduated engineer Mayrim Verdejo, funding uncertainty was enough of a reason to choose a full time offer instead of continuing graduate school. “I had the opportunity to continue my research project as a graduate student, but being funded by NSF, I felt my assistantship wasn’t guaranteed.”  When asked about considering other institutions for graduate school, she pointed,  “UPRM offers an excellent graduate program for electrical engineering, at a bargain”.

Graduate mechanical engineering student Omar Rodríguez understands the importance of external collaborations with UPRM. “As a research graduate student at US Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), I’ve been exposed to procedures and equipment currently not available on campus.” Omar assured without the resources of the ACE, he would not be defending his thesis next May.

Clearly, a debarment will have more than financial effects, and it’s in the best interest of the entire UPR community to reach a favorable conclusion of this matter. The status of the UPR as the primary research center in Puerto Rico, along with current (and prospective) graduate programs is at stake. A healthy relationship with funding agencies is vital to promote research, an essential part of higher education.

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