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Ellen Paul

Government Accountability Office study on indirect costs on NSF grants

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On 28 September 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the oversight of indirect costs by the National Science Foundation. This report followed several others examining indirect costs in grants and contracts issued by government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. 


The GAO found that NSF does not consistently take steps to ensure it pays no more than its fair share of indirect costs, which could unnecessarily limit the amount of funds available for research. Specifically, the GAO found that NSF has developed internal guidance for setting indirect cost rates (ICR) but has not consistently implemented this guidance and has not included certain details and procedures.


The report recommended that: 


The Director of NSF should require staff to follow written internal guidance for (1) using tools and templates NSF has developed for the process for setting indirect cost rates and (2) updating the agency's database to reflect the status of awardees for which NSF has cognizance and of indirect cost rate proposals. 


The Director of NSF should add details to NSF's internal guidance for setting indirect cost rates specifying (1) the criteria to be used by the supervisor for assessing the level of risk and steps for mitigating the risks at each level and (2) the steps for supervisory review of the process for setting indirect cost rates and documentation of the results of the review. 


The Director of NSF should add procedures to NSF's internal guidance for (1) implementing the applicable new provisions of the Uniform Guidance, including updating links to Office of Management and Budget guidance, and (2) monitoring the indirect cost rates that the Department of Interior sets on NSF's behalf. 


The report includes the NSF response, which concurred with all three recommendations and pledged to take the recommended action. 

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