Courtesy of Moffa Photography

Work continues on a method for setting priorities for big research projects at the National Science Foundation, an effort that started in 1991 when Congress asked for help in weighing competing proposals. Lawmakers say they simply cannot understand the big-ticket requests for funding of major research equipment and new facilities that turn up in NSF's budget. Because of the large expense, proposals to build a string of ocean observatories, for one example, or to improve the South Pole station where NSF funds support extensive biological research, for another, must go to Congress as part of the agency's budget request.

Budget items queue up for a wait that may last years, with tens to hundreds of millions of dollars hanging in the balance. Projects that already have NSF backing and need more equipment or a new facility generally move to the head of the line, as do...

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