A couple of days ago, I mentioned the fact that the DOE might have decided to remove funding from the INIE – Innovations in Nuclear Infrastructure and Education – program. I promised to find out more information and get back to you.
While the current status of the program is still a little unclear since the governing appropriations bill has not yet been passed, it does appear that the administration suggested zeroing out the program for FY-07. Apparently, the Energy and Water Appropriations Committee reinserted the funding into the appropriations bill.
One of you – (thank you Jess) – submitted a great comment on my original post and provided a link to the program’s score card, which is titled Detailed Information on the University Nuclear Education Programs Assessment. That score card is part of the administration’s ExpectMore.gov effort to assess government spending programs. The results are used in budget decisions.
While I applaud efforts to fund success and stop funding failed programs, I have some concerns about the evaluation system and its scoring methods. According to the INIE score card, it was assessed as being an ineffective program in the “Results Not Demonstrated” category.
For the most part, the places where the program fell short on its assessment was in the areas of “metrics”. As many of you know, the current administration is big on measurements – current appointees love score cards, dash boards, stop lights, and graphs. They really like it if someone develops a single number that can be continuously measured and monitored to determine success. (As many of you know – my day job puts me in rather close contact with this system.)
When it came time for the INIE review, which was conducted in 2005, the reviewers gave it an overall score of zero in the Program Results/Accountability category and a score of 25% in the Strategic Planning category.
I want to take a minute here to point out something about the timing. The program was initiated in 2001, but the first money from the program did not reach the recipients until late 2002 or early 2003 based on the presentations that I saw. It takes some time for large organizations like universities to decide how to spend money and they cannot legally even issue Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to spend money until they actually have it. The RFP process then requires several months for issuing, submitting and reviewing.
Once the decision is made on how to spend the money, it then takes some time to move through contracting procedures and reviews – which are frustratingly slow, but designed to ensure that money is properly directed. Once the funds actually purchase something in an educational environment, it can take a couple of semesters of using that item, course, or program before it is possible to determine how successfully the money was invested. That is especially true in the case of a building or other infrastructure.
In my somewhat less than humble opinion, true leaders should understand the context of an assessment done just 2 years after starting a program designed as a lubricant and a spark to encourage more interest in a complex technical field like nuclear technology. Despite any explanation of budget posturing – and I highly encourage you to go to Jess’s comment on the post titled ANS Winter Meeting – Day 3 Technical sessions – Focused on Training and Education – I think that the DOE’s 2005 recommendation for zero funding for FY-07 was premature at best.
Here is the true bottom line that makes me say that. It is a quote directly from the program score card and it should really make you “go hmmmm”.
Does the program address a specific and existing problem, interest, or need?
Explanation: The program was originally designed to address declining enrollment levels among U.S. nuclear engineering programs. Since the late 1990’s, however, enrollment levels in nuclear education programs have tripled. In fact, enrollment levels for 2005 have reached upwards of 1,500 students, the program’s target level for the year 2015. In addition, the number of universities offering nuclear-related programs also has increased. Government support for these programs no longer appears necessary.
Evidence: The program was unable to provide evidence that it addressed a specific and existing problem, interest, or need.
Even considering my comments about the timing of the assessment and the need to have some patience before evaluating the effectiveness of a program with a long term goal, it seems to me that there is at least some evidence that the program was working extremely well – so well that it was able to meet its long term goal TEN years early.
By simply acknowledging that nuclear energy was a growth field that could use some small level of assistance ($24 million spread around to more than 2 dozen colleges and universities certainly qualifies as a modest program) the DOE managed to get the attention of university leadership. Like all big organizations, universities have to make budget decisions and generally focus their resources on areas where it looks like their customers (students, research granters, etc) want to go. Starting the INIE was the right signal to send; canceling it partially because it met its goal early is definitely NOT the right signal to send.
That is especially true if one recognizes that the 1500 student goal was set at a time – before the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 – when it looked like there might be 1 or 2 new reactors built in the US to test the one-step licensing regime. With more than 30 possible projects already starting to queue up with the NRC, it looks to me like the student enrollment goal should be doubled or tripled. (There should also be a student graduation goal, but it takes 4-5 years for an enrollment to become even a bachelor’s level graduation.)
The small stream of signal-sending federal money should keep flowing to encourage the much larger stream that can come from the universities, private donors and industry.