National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope

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National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope is a 73-page report released by US Senator Tom Coburn (a conservative Republican from Oklahoma) on May 26, 2011.[1] The report received significant press coverage in mainstream press,[2][3] and generated significant controversy in academia, due to its accusations about various research projects, and its critical view of the social sciences.[4][5][6][7][8]

National Science Foundation's (NSF) budget of about $7 billion represents about 0.5% of the projected 2011 federal deficit.[3]


In this report, highly critical of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Senator Coburn argued that poor management and practices at NSF have resulted in losses of over $1.2 billion due to "waste, fraud, duplication and mismanagement", with a further $1.7 billion in unspent funds.[1] The report fingered several studies that exemplify "waste and duplication"; those cited in the press release included: "$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."[1] Ineffective management examples, cited in report, included "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" and "Inappropriate staff behavior including porn surfing and Jello wrestling and skinny-dipping at NSF-operated facilities in Antarctica".[1]

The report has put forward several recommendations, such as clarifying and establishing guidelines on what is meant by "transformative science", measuring success and ensuring accountability, improving grant accountability, reducing duplication, consolidation of the Directorate for Education & Human Resources and most controversially, elimination of the Social, Behavioral, and Economics Directorate (which receives a total of $200–300 million per year).[1] The press release accompanying the report noted that "The social sciences should not be the focus of our premier basic scientific research agency".[1] Coburn questioned whether "these social sciences represent obvious national priorities that deserve a cut of the same pie" as the natural sciences.[9]

Reception and critique

NSF has replied to the criticism of the reports, saying that it "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 the report itself (indeed, even some of the cases featured in the press release, like the inappropriate actions in the Antarctica facility, were internally reviewed and dealt with within the NSF).[2][9]

Further controversy arose from allegations that many studies highlighted by the report as pointless or wasteful, and made fun of as "silly", are arguably "serious science".[5] Commentators have noted that attacks on "silly science" have a long tradition during economic downturns, with notable past examples including the Golden Fleece Awards established by Senator William Proxmire in the 1970s.[5] The report has been criticized by several professional associations of academics, such as the American Political Science Association and the Association for Psychological Science.[10][11] Academics allege that the report had inaccurate descriptions of their research, often misinterpreting them, or lacking the understanding of the underlying goals.[3][5][6] Others described it as "flat-out inaccurate".[12] Professor John Hibbing noted, it is "legitimate to ask what kind of scientific research is important and what isn't", but a nonscientific report by a politician may not be the best way to achieve this goal.[3]

The report has also been criticized for undervaluing social sciences (such as economics, political science, sociology, psychology, linguistics and others).[4][5][6][7][8][11][13][14] That research includes, for example, collecting demographic statistics and other data on the US population, which are used in public policy and decision making.[14] In a July 11, 2011, letter to the House Appropriations Committee, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) opposed the reduction of funding for the NSF Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, stating, as an example, that the work of social scientists had been part of the development of geographic information systems that could be used in responses to disasters such as the September 11 attacks.[15]

NSF has stated that the biggest saving that the report claims to see, based on unused money, is based on a "misreading of federal statutes", or an accounting misunderstanding. According to NSF, this is money obligated for multiyear grants.[16]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 "Dr. Coburn Releases New Oversight Report Exposing Waste, Mismanagement at the National Science Foundation - Press Releases - Tom Coburn, M.D., United States Senator from Oklahoma". 2011-05-26. Archived from the original on June 6, 2011. Retrieved 2015-10-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Senate Report Finds Billions In Waste On Science Foundation Studies". Fox News. 2011-05-26. Retrieved 2011-12-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Pappas, Stephanie (2011-05-26). "Scientists Cry Foul Over Report Criticizing National Science Foundation - Technology & science - Science - LiveScience -". MSNBC. Retrieved 2011-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 The Unexamined Society David Brooks, The New York Times (July 7, 2011)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Boyle, Alan. "Cosmic Log - Funny science sparks serious spat". Retrieved 2011-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 "Coburn's NSF Idiocy : Mike the Mad Biologist". Retrieved 2011-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Science GRO plays offense and defense in wake of new congressional attacks on behavioral science". Retrieved 2011-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 Mervis, Jeffrey (2011-06-03). "Social Sciences Face Uphill Battle Proving Their Worth to Congress - ScienceInsider". Retrieved 2011-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 JENNY MANDEL of Greenwire (2011-05-26). "Sen. Coburn Sets Sight on Waste, Duplication at Science Agency". Retrieved 2011-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "APSA Responds to Senator Coburn's Report on NSF Funding | APSA". Retrieved 2011-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 "All of Science Stands Behind Behavioral Science at NSF - Association for Psychological Science". Retrieved 2011-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Koerth, Maggie (1999-05-17). "Coburn anti-NSF report misleading, factually incorrect – Boing Boing". Retrieved 2011-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. 14.0 14.1 Poeppel, David (2011-07-15). "Coburn wrong on research - Print View". Retrieved 2011-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Letter from AAAS
  16. Mervis, Jeffrey (2011-05-26). "Senator's Criticism of Science Foundation Draws Fire - ScienceInsider". Retrieved 2011-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links