New law helps NIST hire experts

The two-year-old America Creating Opportunities To Meaningfully Promote Excellence In Technology, Education, And Science (Competes) Act has been highly effective in helping the National Institute of Standards and Technology meet its need for short-term science and technology expertise, according to a new study from the Government Accountability Office.

The authority under the law is especially helpful to NIST for quick turnaround projects that can be awarded without competition, according to the 34-page GAO report, which was published on the Web on Aug. 7.

“Most of these [NIST] officials value the authority because they interpret it as allowing NIST to award contracts without competition, which helps them to quickly select individuals with specialized expertise,” the GAO wrote. At the same time, there are limitations on the contracts that make them less effective to some degree, the report states.

From August 2007 through April 2009, NIST awarded 39 contracts totaling about $1.9 million under the law. The average award amount was $50,754; all the contracts were under a year in duration. Under the contracts, the experts assisted in NIST research projects by designing and conducting experiments analyzing data and publishing their results.

NIST officials say the contracts have been helpful in allowing them flexibility and quick turnaround.

“According to NIST officials, the Competes Act authority, despite limitations, has been highly effective in helping NIST meet its need for experts,” said the GAO report, which was published on Aug. 7.

The authority under the law allows NIST to quickly redirect research to respond to short-term research needs. But there are limitations.

“Some officials said the authority limits the amount of pay that can be offered, which may prevent NIST from contracting with the most highly qualified experts,” the GAO wrote. Also, NIST has strictly applied a one-year limit to the contracts, which limits the ability to retain experts even if they are needed.

“If the authority is not made permanent, NIST officials said they will have to revert to the use of nonpersonal services contracts, which they believe are less effective in meeting the agency’s needs because they require time-consuming contract modifications to redirect research and limit NIST’s ability to select specific experts to do the work” the GAO wrote.

NIST has developed some safeguards for using the authority but further clarification is needed on whether additional safeguards should be imposed, the GAO said. NIST and the Commerce Department agreed with that conclusion.