Federally-Sponsored Multidisciplinary Research Centers: Learning, Evaluation, and Vicious Circles. 

Abstract:

Despite the increasing investment in multi-year federally funded science and technology centers in universities, there are few studies of how these centers engage in learning and change based on information submitted from various agents in the oversight and evaluation process. One challenge is how to manage and respond to this evaluative information, especially when it is conflicting. Although the center can learn and adapt in response to this information, it can also become subject to a vicious circle of continuous restructuring and production of documentation to address various and potentially inconsistent recommendations. In this paper we illustrate the effects of such a dynamic based on our experiences as external evaluators of the $25 million NSF-funded Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center. The case study presents an analysis of annual reports and strategic planning documents along with other sources of evidence to illustrate the evolution of center organizational approaches in response to evaluations by external review panels, center evaluators, program managers, and other external stakeholders. We conclude with suggestions for how evaluators may help centers ease the cost of learning and reduce the likelihood of a vicious circle.

Full Paper

Youtie, Jan, & Corley, Elizabeth A. (2011). Federally-Sponsored Multidisciplinary Research Centers: Learning, Evaluation, and Vicious Circles. Evaluation and Program Planning, 34, 13-20.