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Senator's Criticism of Science Foundation Draws Fire

26 May 2011 5:22 pm

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has long railed against wasteful government spending and urged his colleagues to shrink the federal budget. His latest salvo is a 73-page report released today that accuses the National Science Foundation (NSF) of mishandling nearly $3 billion. The document follows a well-trod path of asserting that a federal research agency is funding trivial and duplicative research in addition to exercising inadequate oversight of existing programs.

But the report, The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope, is itself filled with errors and questionable analyses, say science lobbyists. "The bottom line is that attacks on 'silly grants' are silly and irresponsible," says Howard Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations and former chair of the Coalition for National Science Funding, which advocates for larger NSF budgets.

Silver points to Coburn's criticism of several NSF awards in the social sciences as a prime example.

"His objections to research on democracy and democratic institutions seem odd in a world where building democratic institutions in the Middle East and elsewhere has become increasingly important," Silver observes. He also notes that Coburn's call to eliminate the $255 million a year social, behavioral, and economic sciences directorate echoes a 2006 proposal by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) that was soundly rejected by Congress.

Coburn's report, prepared over several months, credits NSF with making several "worthwhile investments," including research that helped develop the Internet, magnetic resonance imaging, buckyballs, bar codes, and retinal implants. (Coburn introduces the report by saying that "as a practicing physician and two-time cancer survivor, I have a very personal appreciation for the benefits of scientific research.") But he also devotes 25 pages to what he labels "questionable NSF projects," including pictures showing a shrimp walking on a tiny treadmill and a robot folding laundry. Such a list recalls the infamous projects that the late Senator William Proxmire designated for his "Golden Fleece" award in the 1970s and 1980s and the current campaign by House of Representatives Republican leaders to have the public submit online nominations of examples of wasteful spending.

But not every legislator who wants to cut federal spending thinks NSF is the place to start. Invited to comment on Coburn's report, Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), who chairs the House science committee, emailed ScienceInsider to say he "has long supported NSF and believes that their mission supports U.S. scientific discovery and fuels innovation. … [I] believe all taxpayer investments must be well managed, regardless of the agency." On 2 June the committee's research panel will hold a hearing on NSF's support of the social and behavioral sciences.

The biggest "savings" that Coburn identifies is actually a misreading of federal statutes, according to NSF officials. The report accuses NSF of failing to recover $1.7 billion in "expired grants," that is, money grantees didn't spend in the course of doing their research. But that's not true, says NSF. The number reflects all the money that has been obligated for multiyear grants, and the amount (as of last fall) drops as researchers tap their accounts over the duration of their project. "It's being used for exactly the purpose for which it was intended," explains one budget official who requested anonymity.

Only a tiny amount--roughly $30 million a year--is actually left on the table once a researcher has finished his or her project. And that amount is returned each year to the Treasury. "You'd think a U.S. senator would understand how the federal government funds multiyear research projects," says one lobbyist.

John Hart, communications director for Coburn, says, "We stand by what the report says [about the definition of an expired grant], although we're happy to discuss it with NSF." The report is part of a series intended to give the public a clearer idea "of how their money is being spent," says Hart, adding that future reports will examine the policies and practices of other research agencies.

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