Coburn Report Targets National Science Foundation

In what has become an annual routine, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Ok., released yet another report last week claiming to identify wasteful government spending, this time going after the National Science Foundation.

In “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope,” Coburn criticizes the NSF for “lack[ing] adequate oversight of its grant funding, which has led to mismanagement, fraud, and abuse and lack of knowledge regarding research outcomes.”  He goes on to list several examples of “questionable NSF projects,” a hackneyed method (also used in the infamous “YouCut” project) purporting to identify specious research projects merely from risqué-sounding titles. Coburn also called for the elimination of the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate, questioning whether “any of these social studies represent obvious national priorities.”

One of the more damning claims was that the NSF had not returned $1.7 billion of unspent funds.  A quick investigation revealed that the majority ($1.67 billion) of these funds had been allocated for multi-year grants, and would thus be duly spent as expected over the duration of the grant lifetime. In spite of his distaste for much of the work financed by NSF, Coburn resisted the urge to completely micro-manage the agency, claiming that “ultimately, the decision as to what constitutes ‘transformative’ or ‘potentially transformative’ [research] should be left to the scientific community rather than Congress.”

The report was immediately criticized by scientific organizations, as well as by several of the individual researchers whose work had been targeted in the report.  The NSF released its own statement in response:

“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. The discoveries and innovations that have resulted from NSF-funded research have advanced the frontiers of science and engineering, improved Americans’ lives, and provided the foundations for countless new industries and jobs. While no agency is without flaws, NSF has been diligent about addressing concerns from members of Congress about workforce and grant management issues.  Indeed, NSF’s excellent record of tracking down waste and prosecuting wrongdoing is apparent from Sen. Coburn’s report, which notes that NSF has aggressively pursued cases of wrongdoing; terminated and even turned over for criminal prosecution employees found to have violated NSF rules or laws; and diligently collected and returned to the U.S. Treasury any fraudulently used funds. We believe that no other funding agency in the world comes close to NSF for giving taxpayers the best return on their investment.”

ASBMB is working with its partner organizations to craft a thorough response. Stay tuned to the Blotter for further updates..

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