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Volume 89 Issue 23 | p. 8 | News of The Week
Issue Date: June 6, 2011

Report Slams Science Agency

Congress: Senator alleges wasteful spending at NSF, which the agency and others reject
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: National Science Foundation, budget, grants
Sen. Tom Coburn wants NSF to cut waste and duplication.
Credit: Newscom
8923NOTWCoburn_pg8-1
 
Sen. Tom Coburn wants NSF to cut waste and duplication.
Credit: Newscom

Waste and mismanagement at the National Science Foundation have cost taxpayers $3 billion, according to a report issued by Sen. Tom A. Coburn (R-Okla.) late last month. In the 73-page report, Coburn, a strong proponent of cutting the federal budget, rebukes the agency.

The wasteful spending “includes tens of millions of dollars spent on questionable studies, excessive amounts of expired funds that have not been returned to the Treasury, and inadequate contracting practices that increase costs,” Coburn wrote in a letter to taxpayers prefacing his report.

NSF’s response to Coburn’s allegations was swift and unapologetic: “NSF has been diligent about addressing concerns from members of Congress about workforce and grant management issues. We believe no other funding agency in the world comes close to NSF for giving taxpayers the best return on their investment,” the agency said in a statement. NSF’s 2011 budget is $6.8 billion.

Coburn’s report lists a number of NSF grants, mostly in social science fields, that he claims have “little, if any, scientific benefit.” It also includes numerous examples of alleged NSF management problems, most of which come from NSF Inspector General reports issued over the past several years.

The largest waste that Coburn alleges is $1.7 billion in “expired, undisbursed grant accounts.” However, “the $1.7 billion is undisbursed grant balances as of Sept. 30, 2010, and represents the amount NSF grantees have been awarded and have not yet spent,” NSF spokeswoman Maria Zacharias says. The funds are being handled appropriately under federal appropriations laws, she says.

Others familiar with NSF staunchly defend the agency. “NSF is one of the crown jewels of our country,” says Bart Gordon, former chairman of the House Committee on Science & Technology and now a partner at the law firm K&L Gates. “Most of the problems pointed out by Coburn have already been addressed. This great institution shouldn’t be tainted by this.”

Rita R. Colwell, who headed NSF from 1998 to 2004, says she has heard this type of claim before. “My concern is that the allegations are taken out of context and do not represent NSF fairly,” she tells C&EN. “The attempt to eliminate the social and behavioral sciences at NSF reappears over the years and is evidence of a serious lack of understanding of these programs.”

 
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