NSF under fire in survey of customer satisfaction

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Officials at the US National Science Foundation (NSF) are smarting at the results of a survey released last week that places it near the bottom of a list of government services ranked according to customer satisfaction.

Of 28 other participating programmes, only the Internal Revenue Service and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration came lower. Top of the list was the Administration for Children and Families.

The survey was sponsored by the President's Management Council and administered by the University of Michigan Business School. Replies to questions addressed to users of federal services were used to rank them on a 100-point index.

The survey asked grant applicants how well the NSF had handled their requests. Nathaniel Pitts, director of the foundation's office of integrative activities, says its 70 per cent rejection rate partly explains its low score of 57, compared to a mean of 68.6.

Of the 260 NSF survey respondents interviewed, 68 per cent had their grant applications rejected. But the answers to some questions in the survey have revealed weaknesses that cannot be corrected merely by raising the acceptance rate.

Respondents gave the agency a low score for the timeliness and efficiency of the proposal process. They also gave low marks to questions on the quality of peer-review and the fairness of the decision. Pitts says he is most concerned about these measures, as peer review is “the cornerstone of NSF”.

He adds that recent changes to the peer-review process — particularly new requirements that weigh the impact of proposed research on society — may have contributed to the low score.

Jack Crow, director of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida, which has received $18.5 million in NSF funds this year, says he is a “happy customer” of the agency. But he agrees that NSF's peer-review system could be improved.

NSF officials are to carry out a survey to explore problem areas more fully, and promise to participate in the consumer satisfaction index survey again next year. The results of the survey are available at http://www.bus.umich.edu/research/nqrc/govt.html

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Smaglik, P. NSF under fire in survey of customer satisfaction. Nature 402, 846 (1999) doi:10.1038/47154

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