Issue Date: June 20, 2011
NSF Takes A Hit
Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) recent attack on the National Science Foundation is classic political fodder (C&EN, June 6, page 8). The 73-page hatchet job accuses the agency of extensive fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement. Coburn claims that he identified more than $3 billion that the agency has wasted through bad management and duplication over the past few years. Yet none of the material he presents is new, and some of it is probably wrong.
The report starts by making fun of some research projects NSF has funded, mostly in the social sciences fields, then retells a bunch of stories about employee misbehaviors and other management issues that were already investigated by the NSF Office of Inspector General and have long since been resolved. He also accuses the agency of duplicating the work of other federal departments in the areas of energy and education.
The biggest so-called waste that Coburn cites is $1.7 billion that he says is “sitting in expired, undisbursed grant accounts” and should be returned to the U.S. Treasury. NSF basically says that’s hogwash.
An NSF spokeswoman carefully explains that these research funds are neither expired nor sitting. NSF appropriations are obviously not spent all in one year, she says, and the amount Coburn has latched onto is merely the multiyear carryover of long-term grants. The agency is certain it is following all of the laws for spending congressional appropriations in this matter. NSF does actually return to the Treasury Department $20 million to $30 million each year in funding that does not get spent in time, according to the spokeswoman.
The Coburn report is really another example of the politicization of science that has been in vogue over the past few years. The National Institutes of Health, for example, was hit about a decade ago with a series of congressional hearings on ethics violations. Additionally, in 2003, an amendment to the fiscal 2004 NIH appropriations bill would have prohibited the agency from funding a number of specific research projects because, according to the titles of the proposals, they appeared to deal with sexuality research. The amendment lost by just two votes on the floor of the House of Representatives, indicating a disturbing willingness to interfere with the detailed operations of research agencies.
Another example occurred during the George W. Bush Administration. In this case, several agencies moved to restrict the participation of government scientists in international conferences if the topics were deemed to be not politically correct, such as stem cell research, climate change, and birth control (C&EN, Aug. 16, 2004, page 20).
The swipe at NSF is only the latest work by Coburn, who is after agencies because he wants to cut government spending. Over the past several months, he has also reported on wasteful projects under the Obama Administration’s stimulus program, issued a paper on government waste in general, and announced a study of agency duplication of federal job training programs. But the NSF report seems to be the first blast at an individual agency.
This is not surprising, because Coburn has targeted NSF before. In 2009, he introduced a bill that would have banned the agency from supporting any research in political science.
The Oklahoma senator is one in a line of legislators who think they can inspire government savings by pointing out what they see as wasted money. The most famous was Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) who began handing out “Golden Fleece” awards back in 1975 to federal agencies for waste and fraud. Proxmire gave out 159 of these monthly awards, including some to science agencies such as NSF and the Department of Agriculture. He was just as likely, however, to blast waste perpetrated by Congress.
One apparent lesson here is that in times of tight money, the social sciences come under attack first. When asked about this, former NSF director Rita R. Colwell told C&EN: “The attempt to eliminate this very important directorate reappears over the years and is evidence of a serious lack of understanding of the nature of these programs, their value in understanding human behavior, and the low level of public understanding of science and engineering and their contributions to the nation.”
Colwell also pointed out that when she was leading the agency from 1998 through 2004, it was given an award by President Bush as the government’s best-managed agency. “I cannot believe that the NSF has changed in the several years since my term was complete,” she adds. “My concern is that [Coburn’s] allegations are taken out of context and do not represent the NSF fairly and accurately.”
The fact is, NSF may be the least political science agency in the federal government, and it does not need to be dragged down by what appears to be a cheap shot by a senator trying to score political points. Although there may be areas in which NSF can improve, it deserves a better analysis than this senator’s screed. And Coburn, a medical doctor who professes to “appreciate the benefits of scientific research,” should know better.
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