The National Science Foundation is under some mainstream criticism due to budget and waste concerns highlighted by Senate watchdog Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma (see Shrimp On A Treadmill - The NSF Under Fire).
It's easy for the public and members of Congress to show faux outrage unless it is one of their pet projects but, in Coburn's defense, he goes after everyone, not just science; transportation spending waste, military spending waste, you name it and he has gone after it. He is exactly the sort of financial 'watchdog' everyone says they want - unless he is watching their group.
Instead of taking the opportunity to optimize a system everyone in research knows is flawed, some are reacting nervously and feel a need to defend everything in the report. That is a mistake. Some of the items are indefensible. If the NSF wastes - not spends foolishly - outright wastes, $1.2 billion per year, scientists should be outraged by that. It is their taxpayer money being wasted on one hand and it is an average of 4,000 projects that did not get funded last year because of wasted money on the other. If science research is as important for the future as we all say it is, everyone in science should be going after the NSF for holding America back. Instead, the usual suspects are attacking Coburn and Republicans and saying this highly educated M.D. is too stupid to understand the value of research. He's a two-time cancer survivor, of course he understands the value of research. He also understands how much more research could be done if taxpayer money was not wasted.
It's a key point the reflexively outraged in blogging and on Twitter are missing; he isn't against research, he is against waste. People pointing out that the government wastes money lots of other ways isn't helpful. The government spends 50% of its capital on administration so if the NSF now 'fixes' that $1.2 billion in waste, it is another $600 million they spent doing so. Let's just not waste it in the first place. They fired the researcher in the South pole because of the so-called 'Jell-O wrestling', for example, though that one I had no issue with - the South Pole is rather boring outside work and that cost nothing. The NSF weren't simply "Fun Nazis", as he called them, they were also engaged in fixing minor things while major ones went unchecked.
If researchers want more science to be funded, and not less, they simply need to quietly encourage change, because the NSF has 'Science' in its middle name. However, not just anything is science because they put science in their name. Government analysis - political 'science' - is a perfect example of groups that should not be funded by the National Science Foundation. I'm not saying they won't have value, but with a Department of Defense and various other government (much less private) organizations in the funding business, the National Science Foundation should be using its money for science.
Bureaucratic shill Howard Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations and former chair of the Coalition for National Science Funding, which advocates for larger NSF budgets (yes, a lobbyist for bigger budgets from the government) told Science writer Jeffrey Mervis, ""His objections to research on democracy and democratic institutions seem odd in a world where building democratic institutions in the Middle East and elsewhere has become increasingly important."
Democracy can't flourish in the Middle East unless the NSF funds political think tanks? The Institute for National Strategic Studies, Institute for Homeland Security Studies, the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, Federally Funded Research and Development Centers and 100 others are all in the business of thinking about political policy and don't use NSF money. A study on 'How politicians motivate people to make political donations' is not science but it got funded by the NSF.
Economics is also not a science and shouldn't be funded at all by the NSF. Defending that is a silly position for a researcher in biology or physics to take, especially when there are plenty of other groups that can fund economics. I am not saying they should be cast out of the world, I am saying they are not science and the NSF and its limited budget should only be funding 'transformative' science, like they say they do, and not funding 'an analysis of how quickly parents respond to trendy baby names'.
But the money spent on goofy projects is a relative drop in the bucket - only about 200 real science projects were denied funding because silly stuff was. It should be fixed but that is not a source of outrage in a $7 billion endeavor.
The big issue is waste, and in my previous discussion, I said 'if' $1.2 billion is available to be recovered from waste that is an outrage - he said the total wasted money (on goofy projects, waste, expired grants, etc.) was $3 billion that could be better used for science. The NSF responded that his claim of $1.7 billion in 'expired grants' is more like $30 million - but the NSF would not go on record saying Coburn was wrong, an odd thing since government employees cannot have repercussions for simply speaking the truth and Coburn has zero control over the NSF and that $30 million claim was not an official position and instead floated by someone anonymous.
The best the NSF was willing to offer in response was a paid lobbyist saying, "You'd think a U.S. senator would understand how the federal government funds multiyear research projects." Really? A lobbyist? If a lobbyist and nervous scientists who recognize that an inefficient NSF that gets a budget ax will apply it across the board and not simply to non-science and waste is the best defense the NSF has, they are in for a difficult time in June when the House science committee convenes. The meeting was ostensibly to hold a hearing on NSF's support of the social and behavioral 'sciences' but now it is likely to cover a lot more.
Coburn's office stands by their $3 billion, saying "We stand by what the report says [about the definition of an expired grant], although we're happy to discuss it with NSF."
National Science Foundation Funding - A Predictable Response