NSF Debarment Will Cost More Than Millions to the University of Puerto Rico

By: Paloma Sánchez-Jáuregui

For the last three years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been waiting for the University of Puerto Rico to submit time and effort reports for research conducted with this federal agency’s funds. Information about how these funds have been used still remains unknown.

“Could it be that the UPR President Miguel Muñoz is trying to omit fraudulent acts?” asked Prof. Felix Fernández, member of a committee that UPR-Mayagüez created to investigate this situation.

This accusation stemmed from Muñoz’s spending $300,000 to hire a Washington law firm to deal with the NSF’s investigation of UPR’s fund employment. Manuel Gómez, physics professor and director of the Resource Center for Science and Engineering, has been accused of falsely reporting his time and effort and consequently receiving $100,000 for a summer job at the UPR Río Piedras instead of his supposed annual salary of $70,000. Yet, there is no solid evidence to support these accusations and Gómez denies that there was a scheme set in place to make profit from NSF funding.

  17 research projects will have to reapply for a grant on 2013. Since the NSF will not accept any proposals from UPRM, these projects will be cancelled unless they find alternative sources of funding, which is unlikely.

But just, how did the university reach this point?

The problem

This situation rose in February 2010 when NSF visited UPR’s facilities and gave 33 pointers of what the system should fix. “The Central Administration should have informed the UPR community of this occurrence,” said Fernández to point out the first wrongdoing.

On the other hand, on Feb. 12, 2011, a Corrective Action Plan was developed to meet NSF’s demands; 30 were addressed. Of the three that remain, one was to implement a computerized system that records the time and effort that the researchers spend on their projects.

No one besides the President of the UPR system and the Central Administration knew of the elaborate plan that was about to take off. The NSF gave the UPR administration one year and three months to fulfill all of the requirements.  By April, 2012 the UPR did not implement the necessary adjustments to have a time and effort record system. This is why on the April 23, 2012 the federal agency temporarily revoked the funds for the Central Administration and the UPRM. President Miguel Muñoz waited to this day to publish what has been going on since 2010.

 On April 2013, the UPR’s Non-teaching Staff Association (HEEND, for its Spanish acronym) announced that the NSF will soon publish its decision of suspending the funds for the next five years. UPRM students like Raúl Figueroa, political science major and David Bartolomei, member of the UPRM Student Council Association (CGE), said that the lack of action will unavoidably cause the debarment from the NSF. Yet, UPR President Miguel Muñiz denied that the NSF has made such decision and that the NSF will see their compliance to the federal rules.

Reactions and alleged solutions

“Since 2011, the CGE heard some rumors that the NSF demanded time and effort reports but every time we requested more information, there was no reply,” said Bartolomei, who is also the  CGE’s records clerk. When President Miguel Muñiz reported the revocation of the funds, the Academic Senators and the CGE gathered and evaluated the administration’s capacity to resolve this issue. “It was as if they were trying to solve a problem without knowing what the problem was”.

Student General Assembly convoked by the Student Council Association and held in the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez on March 19, 2013. Here students voted in favor to request information from the UPR administration and full transparency regarding the possible debarment of the UPRM from the National Science Foundation’s grants.

Student General Assembly convoked by the Student Council Association and held in the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez on March 19, 2013. Here students voted in favor to request information from the UPR administration and full transparency regarding the possible debarment of the UPRM from the National Science Foundation’s grants.

The CGE has asked to take part in the implementation of the CAP. “We wanted to work together with the administration to bring back the funds from the NSF, but it all points to disband the UPR’s Board of Trustees”. Meanwhile, they have organized activities to raise awareness of this situation: discussion groups, student assemblies, presentations that professors have offered to give and even letters signed by students to support resignation of the president and to request NSF the sanctioning of funds.

Because of the administration’s noncompliance to fully integrate the NSF’s requirements, on November 2012, the CGE requested the resignation of UPR President and UPRM’s Chancellor Jorge Rivera Santos. Other people from the UPR community also recognized the president’s lack of immediate action. On March 2013, UPR Cayey professors and The Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU) publicly requested the president’s resignation.

“This problem rooted from the lack of supervision that exists between all employment levels from janitor to president,” said Dr. Orlando Sotomayor, economics professor at UPRM.  “The solution lies in imposing a system that can monitor and supervise the work that both teaching and non-teaching staff does”. From this interview, it was made clear that the UPR administration has to solve this issue because the NSF is the most prevalent funding agency in the nation.

Where will the money come from?

If the university fails to meet the demands of the NSF and suffer from a debarment like HEEND stipulated, the university will have to meet with more financial obligations than ever before. By March 2013, the suspension has cost the university about $30 million and the NSF has frozen about $90 million in funds for future research projects.  “If a full debarment comes into place, the university will lose its prestige along with its global standing,” said Bartolomei. This would mean cancelled research projects, elimination of support aid programs, exodus of professors, and a significant drop in aids to graduate students.

The debarment could also create a domino effect by which other federal funding agencies, like the National Institute of Health, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense, might also terminate funding and support. Also, Fernández said that it was found on the Codes of Federal Regulations (Article 85.612) that the Pell-Grant may also be revoked.

If the university will be able to fund a debarment is unknown but ever since Moody’s downgrade of the $600 million UPR bonds to “junk,” the university has lost accessibility to any credit.  To fund some of the liabilities, UPR burrowed $6 million from the Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico (BGF). Not long after, Standard and Poor’s financial rating agencies downgraded the BGF.

Adding to the UPR’s financial stress is the economic recession of Puerto Rico. The inflow of money to the UPR will decrease since the state government gives a percentage amount of money based on the citizens’ contributions.

Without the NSF funds, many Puerto Rican scientists couldn’t have realized all of their discoveries. “What future will Puerto Rico have if it loses the opportunity for research training?” wrote Giovanna Guerrero, University of California-Berkeley graduate and director of sciencepuertorico.org in a news article. “The emergency of this situation reaches a national level, it is even with the degradation of Puerto Rico’s bank credit, except for this case, is the degradation of  Puerto Rico’s academic reputation.”

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