May 26, 2011

Senator Claims NSF Is Wasting Money

US Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK) on Thursday released a new report that raises questions regarding the National Science Foundation's (NSF) priorities and management of funds for seemingly unneeded research.

His report -- "The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope" -- identifies more than $1.2 billion the NSF has lost due to waste, fraud, duplication and mismanagement and an additional $1.7 billion in unspent funds.

The report, obtained exclusively by ABC News, shows that the NFC spent nearly $500,000 in research funds to put a shrimp on a treadmill, and another $1.5 million to create a robot that can fold laundry. And while many homemakers would probably love to have a robot at home to fold clothes, it should be taken into consideration that it took 25 minutes for the robot to fold a single towel.

Another study utilized $300,000 in taxpayer money to determine if playing Farmville on Facebook helps to build personal relationships.

One million dollars has been spent for an analysis of how quickly parents respond to trendy baby names. Two million dollars has been spent to figure out if people who post pictures on the Internet from the same location and at the same time are friends or not. And another $580,000 to determine if online dating users were racist.

Other areas the report explored were the mismanagement of funds including hundreds of millions of dollars lost to ineffective contracting and $3 million in excessive travel funds. The report also details a lack of accountability or program metrics to evaluate expenses.

The report also identified 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 education (STEM). 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.

"What it says to me is, they have too much money if they're going to spend money on things like that," Coburn told ABC News in an interview.

"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," said Coburn.

"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 added.

"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," he said.

Coburn added in his report several recommendations that should be followed, which can be found here.

In response to Coburn's report, the NSF launched a strongly regarded defense of its projects. Agency officials said they "have advanced the frontiers of science and engineering, improved Americans' lives, and provided the foundations for countless new industries and jobs."

That statement is backed by facts it says. One agency project helped lead to the creation of Google, while another led to the invention of bar codes.

The NSF, which is headquartered in Arlington, VA, across the river from Washington DC, is about to end a 20-year lease on a building it was renting for $19 million a year. It is planning to move to a new building that will cost the agency $26 million a year to rent. 


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