Sen. Coburn Exposes Waste at the NSF

May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) released May 26 a report documenting more than $3 billion he sees as wasteful spending and mismanagement at the key science agency and calls for cuts and streamlining. More than $1.2 billion of that money has been lost due to waste, fraud, duplication and mismanagement and an additional $1.7 billion in unspent funds.

The report, “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope”, offers a list of research projects that exemplify the waste and duplication that Coburn outlines in his report, such as:

• $80,000 study on why the same teams always dominate March Madness;

• $315,000 study suggesting playing FarmVille on Facebook helps adults develop and maintain relationships;

• $1 million for an analysis of how quickly parents respond to trendy baby names;

• $50,000 to produce and publicize amateur songs about science, including a rap called “Money 4 Drugz,” and a misleading song titled “Biogas is a Gas, Gas, Gas”; and

• $581,000 on whether online dating site users are racist.

“Who would disagree the dollars spent on these efforts could not have been better targeted identifying more efficient, renewable fuels, developing the next generation of computers, creating new antibiotics for resistant bacteria, or simply reducing the nation’s debt?” Coburn asked in the report. The  report also provides a few recommendations on how the agency could improves the handling of its funds, including:

• Establish Clear Guidelines for What Constitutes “Transformative” and “Potentially Transformative” Science. The agency has begun this process, but much more needs to be done to evaluate the merit of each project funded by the agency.

• Set Clear Metrics to Measure Success and Standards to Ensure Accountability. The agency clearly needs to improve its grant administration and evaluation mechanisms. Addressing these areas will help set better priorities while also rooting out fraudulent and inappropriate expenditures.

• Eliminate NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economics (SBE) Directorate ($255 million in FY 2010). The social sciences should not be the focus of our premier basic scientific research agency.

• Consolidate the Directorate for Education & Human Resources ($872 million in FY 2010). In addition to excessive duplication within the agency and across the federal government, spending on education and human resources comes at the expense of actual scientific pursuits. Consolidation can lead to increased investment in transformative scientific studies.

• Use It or Lose It: NSF Should Better Manage Resources It Can No Longer Spend or Does Not Need and Immediately Return $1.7 Billion of Unspent, Expired Funds It Currently Holds. Better grant management and closeout procedures could increase available funds for research and provide savings for the federal government.

In a brief statement, NSF officials defended the agency’s work.

“The National Science Foundation is renowned for its gold-standard approach to peer review of each of the more than 40,000 proposals it receives each year,” officials said. “While no agency is without flaws, NSF has been diligent about addressing concerns from members of Congress about workforce and grant management issues, and NSF’s excellent record of tracking down waste and prosecuting wrongdoing is apparent from Sen. Coburn’s report. We believe that no other funding agency in the world comes close to NSF for giving taxpayers the best return on their investment.”

Although it’s important to investigate the possible waste of precious government dollars, there are a few things wrong with Coburn’s report. First, this report premises that the NSF is the only one responsible for government waste and overlap, when that is not the case. The Grace Commission presented its findings on government waste and overlap to Congress in January 1984. The commission claimed that if its recommendations were followed, $424 billion could be saved in three years, rising to $1.9 trillion per year by the year 2000. It estimated that the national debt, without these reforms, would rise to $13 trillion by the year 2000, while with the reforms they projected it would rise to only $2.5 trillion.Congress ignored the commission’s report. The debt reached $5.8 trillion in the year 2000. The national debt reached 13 trillion after the subprime mortgage-collateralized debt obligation crisis in 2008. Not implying that Coburn’s report ought to be ignored, but rather that investigating government spending needs to happen government wide, and not just focus on a few specific entities.

Second, the research Coburn deems wasteful is only considered such because Coburn says so. Although Coburn is an M.D., it seems that the results and implications of those research projects were not taken into consideration when he conducted his investigation and put together the report. A research project should only be deemed wasteful if the project doesn’t produce significant results or lead to any significant conclusions. Plus, research involving social media and websites is completely necessary in this day and age. As the Internet becomes an increasing part of our lives, research needs to be done to understand that impact

The real question is how we can help in determining the potential value of the research. A tighter integration of the research with the people who are “end-users” is needed to spend money efficiently on projects that positively impact lives and add to the progress of science. The only way to understand which projects should be funded further is to crowd-source the products of the research e.g. the publications that come out of them.
Do you think the NSF could be doing better to manage its funds? Or is Coburn just picking a fight with the NSF in order to cut research spending in anyway possible? What would be your solution to increase the effectiveness of research dollars?
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