Dr. Coburn exposes waste, mismanagement at the National Science Foundation

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK) today released a new oversight report, “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope” that raises serious questions regarding the agency’s management and priorities.  The report identifies more than $1.2 billion the National Science Foundation (NSF) has lost due to waste, fraud, duplication and mismanagement and an additional $1.7 billion in unspent funds.  

“As a practicing physician and a two-time cancer survivor, I understand the benefits of scientific research.  Investing in innovation and discovery can transform our lives, advance our understanding of the world and create new jobs.  There is no question NSF serves an important –and legitimate – purpose in our society and has contributed to scientific discovery.  As the NSF accurately notes, advances like the Internet, cloud computing, bar codes and magnetic resonance imaging technology were supported with investments from NSF,” Dr. Coburn said.

“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,” Dr. Coburn said.

“As part of my commitment to conduct better oversight on how Washington spends your money, this NSF report is the latest in a series of oversight reports.  At a time when the U.S. 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.  This report demonstrates how NSF can do both.  I hope NSF and the scientific community will welcome this oversight and offer insights on how to better prioritize our nation’s limited financial resources to advance science and reduce wasteful spending,” Dr. Coburn said.  

Examples of the more than $3 billion in waste and duplication outlined in the report include:
•  $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”;
•  $2 million to figure out that people who often post pictures on the internet from the same location at the same time are usually friends; and
•  $581,000 on whether online dating site users are racist.

Additionally, the report details examples of mismanagement including:
•  Hundreds of millions of dollars lost to ineffective contracting;
•  $1.7 billion in unspent funds sitting in expired, undisbursed grant accounts;
•  At least $3 million in excessive travel funds
•  A lack of accountability or program metrics to evaluate expenditures.
•  Inappropriate staff behavior including porn surfing and Jello wrestling and skinny-dipping at NSF-operated facilities in Antarctica.

The report also identifies duplication between NSF and other departments and agencies.  NSF is one of at least 15 federal departments, 72 sub-agencies, and 12 independent agencies engaged in federal research and development.  

NSF also duplicates the work of the Department of Education and other government agencies in the area of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education.  In 2010, there were 28 STEM education programs at NSF totaling $1.2 billion.  Across the federal government, there are 99 STEM education programs totaling $3 billion.

Finally, the report makes a number of recommendations:

•  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 AccountabilityThe 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.

•  Reduce Duplication: Develop a Strategic Plan to Streamline Federal Research and Development. 
With so many agencies performing research and development, the White House Office of Science and Technology should develop a strategic plan to better coordinate research and development efforts and make specific recommendations to eliminate duplication.

•  Provide the NSF Inspector General Additional Resources and Place a Greater Emphasis on the Office of Inspector General’s Findings. 
Reducing outright fraud and inappropriate expenditures is an important priority.