Senator slams National Science Foundation for 'waste'

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A senator known for his opposition to unnecessary government spending has hit out at the National Science Foundation in a 73-page report.

Tom Coburn accuses the organization of having lost more than $1.2 billion through waste, fraud, duplication and mismanagement. He says it's also lost a further $1.7 billion in unspent funds.

He's an expert, you understand: "As a practicing physician and a two-time cancer survivor, I understand the benefits of scientific research," he says.

"Unfortunately, in some ways NSF has undermined its core mission through mismanagement and misplaced priorities. For instance, spending taxpayer dollars to study why some college basketball teams dominate March Madness, funding trips for romantically-involved NSF employees and duplicating programs contributes to our debt rather than science."

Coburn appears to have a particular problem with the social sciences. Among the NSF-funded projects he picks out as being a waste of money are a study of behavioral patterns on Facebook - which Coburn describes as a "study suggesting playing FarmVille on Facebook helps adults develop and maintain relationships".

He also objects to a study looking at whether online dating site users are racist.

"At a time when the US is being both challenged as the world's scientific and technological leader and threatened by a nearly insurmountable $14 trillion debt, we must learn to do more with less," he says.

Some of the criticisms in the report appear to be based on a misunderstanding of how the funding process works. He claims, for instance, that the NSF has $1.7 billion in unspent funds sitting in expired, undisbursed grant accounts.

In fact, most grants are given for a multi-year period; it wouldn't be particularly desirable for the NSF to spend every penny the moment the cash hits its accounts. And any unspent money at the end of the grant period is, er, returned to the treasury.

Still, it has to be said that the NSF does sound rather a fun place to work. Coburn's report also criticises "inappropriate staff behavior including porn surfing and Jello wrestling, and skinny-dipping at NSF-operated facilities in Antarctica."

Maybe he's just jealous.