For U.S. academic scientists doing research in a discipline funded by the National Science Foundation a stint as an NSF rotator is not uncommon. (Rotators are scientists, usually from academia, who do a stint at NSF, where they help set funding priorities and evaluate grant proposals.) Some rotators see it as an opportunity to have a greater impact on the direction science takes; others see it as a break from faculty careers that have come to seem monotonous. NSF, which in contrast to most other agencies has no intramural researchers of its own, relies on rotators to provide a welcome (even necessary) injection of scientific perspective; an agency run by lifetime public servants could easily lose touch with what's happening in the trenches.
But according to a special report in ScienceInsider by Jeffrey Mervis—the first of two parts (the second part of the report is also on the site)—all is not rosy in rotator land. First, NSF's Office of Inspector General (IG) is concerned about the cost of rotators, which is significantly higher than the cost for comparable public servants. NSF's IG takes issue with what it considers the administration's lax oversight of travel expenses and its failure to look for ways to save money. NSF's administration maintains that counting pennies isn't a good way to attract the best people, but the IG isn't convinced that running a leaner operation would alienate recruits; after all, the IG says, NSF doesn't seem to have tried it yet.
Another concern has been that rotators are not evaluated annually like regular staff. This year, NSF started executing a 2005 plan to implement a formal evaluation process.
In Part 2, Mervis points out that rotators work under an agreement that allows all involved parties to terminate the rotator's "employment" at any time. Anja Strømme knows this system all too well: She was working at SRI International when she was asked to help NSF clear a backlog of grant applications. She accepted the offer and worked at NSF as a rotator until she lost her job this spring. Strømme was accused of violating conflict-of-interest rules, and she had no way to protect herself against termination.
Read "Can NSF Put the Right Spin on Rotators? Part 2" to find out what happened next.