New Oversight Report Highlights Billions in Waste, Fraud at National Science Foundation

Late yesterday, the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a brand new oversight report entitled “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope.”  According to the official press release from Dr. Coburn’s office, the oversight report–reminiscent of his and Sen. John McCain’s fantastic “Summertime Blues” report on wasteful stimulus spending–the new report exposes $1.2 billion in misappropriated, mismanaged or wasted funds by the National Science Foundation, as well as an additional $1.7 billion in unspent funds.

From the press release:

“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 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.
  • 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.

This is the sort of thing that I could ramble on and on and on about. In fact, the waste, fraud and abuse inherent to the very disinterested and disconnected nature of our federal government played into a large part of the book project I had been working on until the second Bar Exam–and second crack at fatherhood–interrupted things. Sadly, just like I’m not sure whether I’ll ever finish such an onerous project–I am riddled with ADD, after all, and am averse to projects of such large scope–I am similarly not sure whether Dr. Coburn or anybody else will ever bring a stop to the governmental behavior we see above.

$581,000 to study whether online dating site users are racist? Seriously? That sounds like a pork project adopted by Rep. James Clyburn.  And, for what it’s worth, so long as you want to avoid racism on online dating sites, stay away from and  (Those, by the way, are fake sites.  I hope.)

$1 million to study how quickly parents respond to trendy baby names?  Seriously?  At this point, considering the astronomically rising cost of high education, if my wife and I were having another child I would seriously consider naming him or her “Doctor” or “President.” All the recognition, minimal extra cost.  All kidding aside, I fail to understand how this study, or the studies on Facebook picture postings, March Madness and more have anything whatsoever to do with science.

You know, I’m not one to bemoan actual science.  My mother is a breast cancer survivor, and I’ve watched as one of our clients at my law firm has grown stronger despite her fight with Stage III cancer.  Both of my children were born prematurely, and spent a fair amount of time in a Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit.  I have a friend who is a commercial fisherman and depends upon reasonable and effective conservation efforts so that he may continue to make a living. There is a place and time and means for true scientific research, and as much of an advocate for small government as I may be, there is even a role for the federal government in facilitating those efforts.

However, it goes without saying that the private sector and the free market will bring about technological and scientific advances quicker than any government-managed program will.  General Electric makes bigger and better incubators because they know that any hospital hoping for the best Neo-Natal reputation in the community will be quick to purchase them.  Pharmaceutical companies will risk hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development in hopes to find the next life-changing drug, be it a cancer drug, be it a drug that prevents heartburn, or be it a drug that allows Alzheimer’s patients to have a little more time with their families.  If there is a need to determine whether or not engaging in social networking helps adults foster and maintain relationships, then that question should be posed to the free market, not subsidized by taxpayer money from you and from me.



  1. Dee says:

    Don’t forget the thousands spent on studying jello (I think that was it) fighting and studying shrimp on a treadmill. Imagine the jobs created by building those tiny treadmills and making all that jello. Amazing how the government spends the money. Thanks, Jeff.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Our government, has the art of wasting money, down to a SCIENCE.

  3. John Paul Finan says:

    It sure is easy to criticize that which you don’t bother to understand. The studies referenced may or may not have merit, and reading this article won’t help anyone understand one way or the other. Jeff doesn’t bother to ask a single question of his source, preferring to just parrot everything verbatim like a loving little yes man.
    The study about March Madness? A two minute Google search reveals that it was a dissertation regarding constructal law, which is used to describe and predict the outcomes of flow systems both natural and man made. Just because the work has some relation to March Madness, with which the general public can better relate than the mathematics of constructal theory, does not mean it is a waste of effort. There is no doubt whatsoever that the other studies are similarly deceptively characterized, as anyone who is familiar in any way with the ultra-competitive funding process can attest.
    That brings us to the next point, where Jim repeats the assertion that anything related to the ‘private market’ is the most gee-golly-best whiz-bang awesomeness ever. In reality, though, the ‘private market’ is a concept. It’s not actually a good or a bad thing. It a mechanism by which supply and demand may be effectively balanced when a variety of preconditions are met. If those preconditions are satisfactory, the market is efficient. If they are not, the market is not efficient. Science which may yield a direct monetary value to the owner, such as turbines for GE or what have you, is indeed well conducted by the private market. However, a lot of research concerns things that are helpful to people but which cannot be effectively capitalized by a corporation or individual. How do you enforce a patent on a method of rotating crops which increases yields appreciably? Are you going to post sentries at farms to make sure the farmers don’t plant the crops in the order in which your research indicates they ought to? No one can do that, and so no private entity would pay for such research. Yet the net gain to society of that research might well greatly exceed its cost, though no private corporation will choose to take up the task. The list of projects and research that falls into this category is a mile long. How about GPS? It’s far more useful as an open system, and it would never exist without public research and funding. How about a lighthouse? How would you charge people for the use of your lighthouse? You couldn’t, so you wouldn’t build one. That’s why public goods exist.
    If you would like to learn more, any introductory microeconomics 101 textbook can explain the concept of public goods to you. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with politics, for that matter. Both conservative and liberal economists (and any one of the millions of business school grads) is aware of what public goods are and why it makes sense to fund some things collectively. Neither Tom Coburn or Jim Schreiber is helping us understand the NSF or how its work might be made more efficient in any way, shape, or form.

  4. Gail B. says:

    @Dee ~
    I’d rather spend money on Jello than the salaries for the “czars,” although both are a waste.

  5. Randy Wills says:

    To “John Paul Finan”:

    I’m impressed with your “Econ 101″ erudition, as seen from the Left. Government is the savior, right?

    And just where would you draw the line for government expenditures of the productive (“productive” I said, not “busy”)citizen’s money, and who should make those decisions?

    The truth of the matter is that we have a politcal system comprised of individuals with their own ideas of what is good and what isn’t. The “government” is no more capable of managing taxpayer money effectively than the most self-interested person walking the street.

    And this is the essence of the financial problem that we face as a nation; too large a large segment of our society assumes that the “government” is a legitmate source of sustanance, regarless of whether or not they (the individual or the activity) actually are involved in productive efforts. No society can long survive a population which looks to the “government”, staffed by self-serving elected politicians, to fund their existance. Eventually, the moral hazzard inherent in human nature overtakes any good intentions that individuals in the “government” might have, and the system collapses of its own weight (read “debt”).

    Let those who actually create an economy trough productive efforts make the decisions as to what collective effort is worthy of their hard-earned income.


  6. Gail B. says:

    It could have been a rerun, but Neal Boortz was having a stroke over this on the radio this morning when I woke up.

    Where in the Constitution does it give the federal government the authority to study online dating services or March Madness?

    @John Paul Finan ~
    In the words of Rep. Allen West (FL-22), “Don try to blow sunshine up my butt!”

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