National Science Foundation Funding - A Predictable Response
    By Hank Campbell | May 27th 2011 10:14 AM | 18 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    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."


    Why does the NSF employ a paid lobbyist? I know my employer (a university) also does and I'm not comfortable with it, but at least we're a private university. But the NSF - which LIVES entirely on taxpayer money - using that money to lobby/bribe members of another government body is obscene. That's money I could be using for my research.
    And they are government employees and part of a union, so they not only pay lobbyists to lobby for more money for their budgets, they pay lobbyists to lobby for more money for them and other union members.  All of which comes out of tax coffers - twice as much because the government, and therefore taxpayers, pay to negotiate against themselves.
    Unions lobbying for benefits for employees (whether private-sector or public-sector) is entirely different from NSF as an agency lobbying for funds for itself... which was what I thought you meant. My professional society also has lobbyists in Washington. I strongly support both private-sector and public-sector unions (that protect working conditions of employees from predatory practices by management) and will continue to do so. This is different from defense contractors - reliant on government funds - using taxpayer monies to lobby/bribe legislators for private profit.
    They are separate issues but the NSF does both; they have lobbyists who lobby for more science funding, which is to be distributed by the NSF.   It's not complicated.  Stupid, but not complicated.   The fact that the government is only 50% efficient, and then the NSF is wasting 50% on top of that, makes taxpayers look stupid.
    You are correct. When someone attacks another's work, and misrepresents it to serve a political end, it is indeed "a predictable response" for them to defend themselves. In this case, the upset of the scientific community is not a rejection of the idea of cutting "waste", but anger at the dishonest and disingenuous way this report makes its cynical case. As some who thinks that the government is "50% inefficient" you probably find it easy to believe the overboard claim that the NSF wastes 50% of its budget. I ask you to look critically at the report before you promote this $3 billion number as fact.

    Here are some of the key problems with the report:

    1.) Methodology: researchers were not aware they were in the document and given no opportunity to explain their research.
    2.) Tone: If there is real content in the report, then Coburn does not need to resort to emotional appeals. The writing of the report is embarrassingly bad. It may be fine to put indignant, rhetorical questions into a newspaper editorial, but it has no place in a series budget analysis. Science policy should (AND IS) determined by serious deliberation by experts knowledgable and genuinely connected with the field, not by grandstanding and appeals to populist outrage.
    3.) Misrepresentation of research: Coburn uses his own language to describe the research. Many of the cases in the report characterize the entirety of the grant proposal based on a small, out-of-context part of the research. If he respected the intelligence of the American people, he would present the actual abstracts from the grant proposals in his report and let the research speak for itself. Instead he presents it in his own, loaded and non-scientifici language, divorced from any semblance of context.
    4.) Gross inflation of numbers: Most NSF grants have multi-year funding profiles. It is thoroughly misleading to compare these against annual budgets. It is also misleading to pick a small part of a project and then cite the overall budget for the project, as if to suggest that all of the money is going to that part. There is no rigorous accounting or number crunching.
    5.) Misrepresentation of "duplication" and "redundancy". First of all, in experimental science some level of redundancy is essential. Repeatability is a foundational aspect of the scientific method. But, beyond that, there is a difference between overlapping areas of authority between agencies and outright redundancy. If one funding agency puts money towards social science project A and another puts money towards social science project B is that duplication? No. A and B are completely different projects. They just happened to be in the same field. You may feel strongly that both projects should fall under the same agency. You may also feel that a particular field is receiving too much money. But, these are questions of division of authority and research priorities. They are not a matter of the same thing being done twice...At least not necessarily.

    Some of this is subjective but I am glad to see more than one of us actually read the thing - most of the bloggers on the Internet railing against it didn't bother, they saw Republican and funding and went off on rants.   He makes a few errors I wish he had not made, like citing a press release aggregator site,, as a primary source, but that is one instance.   And his tone was confrontational.

    The NSF does a good job, as Coburn says in the beginning of the document, but it could be a lot better - and it isn't like he just goes after science, he goes after DoD and everywhere there is waste.   As I said, he is the kind of financial junkyard dog everyone claims government should have - unless he is looking at them.   I disagree, of course, but this site gets no government funding and does more for science outreach than the $5 billion government has spent on STEM and science education so he is not wrong in thinking money is being wasted.   Of the thousands of scientists here, not a single one doesn't have a funding horror story or know of blatant junk being funded.

    Even if you you disagree about waste, the non-science projects they fund alone would have funded 1500 'transformative' studies - real science, not political and social gobbledygook.   Scientists should not be defending that, they should be happy the guy is trying to get more real science funded.  
    Thanks for the response!

    But, one has to be realistic. There is no institution, public or private, that operates perfectly efficiently. However, having worked with the people who make funding decisions for the NSF, I feel that it is a model organization. These people are serious, thoughtful, sincere and enthusiastic. And, they are truly deliberate in their vision and choices of research to fund. In short, the NSF is under-funded, not over-funded. And, it is not where the real waste is.

    I do agree with you that Coburn is equal opportunity on his budget hacking. But, this report really calls his sincerity into question. I'm sorry, but his portrayal of the "wasteful" research was thoroughly dishonest. I went through random examples and looked a few up, and he just barely skirts away from outright lying about the scopes and purposes of these projects.

    Regarding what you call "non-science projects", I'm not sure what you mean. If you mean research that you do not consider to be legitimate scientific research, then I think you are being unfair. A lot of the social science projects Coburn picks on fall under the umbrella of new developments towards quantitive, computational sociology. These have far reaching applications in national-security (terrorist networks), business management, politics, etc. I've actually read some papers on social networking theory as a side-interest and these guys are actually turning poli-sci into a hard science. The internet and social networking (and, yes, sports teams) provide vast and unprecedented amounts of statistical data for studying group dynamics. To defund the study of these data would be a wasted opportunity.

    Finally, to the extent that NSF spending should be scrutinized at all, it belongs in the hands of a non-partisan commission of experts, not a guy with a clear partisan agenda and narrative to tell. My own experiences in physics have really opened my eyes to the fact that every new congress wants to rewrite science policy. As a consequence, we can't get anything done, because what is funded one year may be defunded the next. The science world needs more continuity. It needs more long-term vision from people who actually care about it. It needs less micromanagement from folks who see it as just another venue through which to further a non-scientific agenda.

    I can accept most of this except funding non-science.  'Science' is the middle name of the NSF and if those sociology projects are so worthy, they will get funded elsewhere - the contention that only the government will fund science is a myth invited by academics who like being part of the government.   They simply are not science.

    It needs less micromanagement from folks who see it as just another venue through which to further a non-scientific agenda.
    ... replace 'science' with 'the military' or any other group funded by the government and you see why that will never fly for a number of reasons.   I certainly agree both parties are interested in manipulating science for their agendas - but the NSF was created by the government to steer science toward what government wanted, not altruism about science.    The only answer is to not take government money.   There is zero chance science will get a blank check and have no one to answer to.   There is also zero chance the NSF budget will get cut - so if scientists want actual science funding to go up, they should analyze the report fairly and not pretend Coburn is a partisan hack (but noooo Democrats are) and side with the parts that make sense and get them fixed.  To simply say 'the NSF is awesome, no money is wasted, give them more' is not being a constructive part of a policy dialogue, it is putting blinders on.
    Again, what do you mean by non-science? I'm sorry, but social networking theory, agent-based modeling, and complexity theory are science. Psychology is also a science, last time I checked.

    "The only answer is to not take government money."

    "the contention that only the government will fund science is a myth invited by academics who like being part of the government. "

    Well I really don't know if the discussion can go much further from here. You clearly have a very poor opinion of the scientific community and the work that they are doing. You also clearly see little value in public-anything. There is a lot of really great literature on the connection between basic science and commercialization. Public research money is able to facilitate basic science that would not be possible otherwise. Such research is essential to America's long-term competitive edge, but not profitable enough in the short run to interest business. Read about "death valley", the gap between basic research and commercialization. It really underscores the important role government has to play in building public-private partnerships around basic science.

    " if scientists want actual science funding to go up, they should analyze the report fairly and not pretend Coburn is a partisan hack (but noooo Democrats are) and side with the parts that make sense and get them fixed. To simply say 'the NSF is awesome, no money is wasted, give them more' is not being a constructive part of a policy dialogue, it is putting blinders on."

    Please try to sit in on an actual NSF review at a nearby University. Or at least talk to scientists about the process. I wish more people could experience how rigorous and thorough and transparent the process is. I (and, I would venture, most of the scientific community) feel strongly that in terms of effective management and in terms of return-to-investment, few institutions can rival the NSF. I fully agree that the process can be made better, but that requires a *constructive* dialogue, not a dishonest smear campaign.

    Coburn's report is thoroughly dishonest, plain and simple. It is a straw man. The scientific community does not owe this the dignity of being a jumping-off point for constructive dialogue. They need to call it what it is: a smear campaign and a case of political bullying. A real dialogue needs to start from the position of "how can we make US science better?", not "how can I further my agenda by making somebody else look bad?". It should challenge and engage the scientific community, not attack it. A real dialogue needs to be grounded in reality. This report is primarily fiction.


    Well I really don't know if the discussion can go much further from here. You clearly have a very poor opinion of the scientific community and the work that they are doing. 
    You're joking, right?  I spent 10,000 hours of my life working for free so scientists could write directly to the public.    Who at the NSF works for free?  Do you do anything in science for free?   If so, show it.  Mine is right here for the world to see.

    I get that you hate Republicans and can't objectively see anything if it has an R near it, I get that you are going to defend any amount of waste and anything nonsensical if the NSF funds it - including whether or not people lie in text messages or swill like wondering if dating services are more racist after Obama's election or anything else that would clearly not be science if you got your project denied instead of those.

    But do not come here and try to frame me as anti-science because I am not part of your partisan cult on a rant against Republicans.   The notion that you would tell anyone here something idiotic like "or at least talk to scientists about the process" shows far more lack of knowledge about Science 2.0 than I have about the NSF.   Some of the report may be fiction, so is your credibility.
    "Well I really don't know if the discussion can go much further from here. You clearly have a very poor opinion of the scientific community and the work that they are doing. "

    My apologies. I put that down without thinking and I took the statement too far. I just meant to say that if you don't believe in publicly funded science in the first place, then the gap between us is too unbridgeable. Also, I fully admit I know nothing about science2.0 (I stumbled on to this site by a google search) and I don't purport to, but I am genuinely interested in checking it out.

    That said:
    1. I am NOT a liberal
    2. I don't need to be a liberal to point out that Coburn's report is dishonest, disingenuous, poorly written, and political in tone.

    If you really believe that anyone who finds this report to be insulting and upsetting is a liberal, than you should also consider your own biases.

    Here is the abstract on the "text messaging" research:
    Here is the webpage of the PI for that project:

    I don't know a ton about his research, but I can see value in it. I can also see science in it. I certainly don't see it as "waste" and I certainly think that the description of it in "under the microscope" is misleading and off-base.

    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry, but what are statements like this supposed to mean?
    This research addresses this fundamental problem by developing a narrative approach to interpersonal awareness, and by focusing on the role of deception in managing these narratives.
    Since there are no mechanisms for managing deception when one is face to face with others, and it certainly isn't something that can be managed in any technical way (i.e. lie detection), then what exactly is being proposed here?
    Mundus vult decipi
    "since there are no mechanisms for managing deception when one is face to face with others, and it certainly isn't something that can be managed in any technical way (i.e. lie detection), then what exactly is being proposed here?"

    I would propose that, rather than asking this as a rhetorical question, you contact the principle investigator and ask him directly. Because if this report he might be busy. But, under normal circumstances, I bet he would be glad to answer any tough questions, asked with genuine curiosity.

    I don't care about you being a liberal.   I'm a liberal.    I just refuse to put anything done by a Republican down to being anti-science.

    And the metric for science funding is not if you can find something worthy in it - and it sounds like fuzzy pseudoscience nonsense - the metric is, is it superior to the 90% of actual science studies that were denied funding so it could go ahead?   Because that is reality.   The bulk of proposals will not get accepted so if complete rubbish is funded, and waste is allowed, that kills the career of a real scientist somewhere.

    If the waste and non-science studies (sorry, political science is not science, sociology is not science, economics is not science, as much as they try to adapt an air of science legitimacy) go away, it means twice as much actual science - transformative science - can be funded.  And that is the goal.   If the actual waste only turns out to be $100 million, that is still 3-500 more things that could be studied that aren't right now.   But the waste is not $0, and it is not out of the control of government to lessen it.   They should, otherwise the budget will get cut and, because the waste and squandering is not fixed, even fewer real science will be funded.

    No one here has ever once said no science should be publicly funded - I think all kinds of things can be publicly funded, and I wrote an endorsement of the Library of Congress's media streaming today, but their budget should not go to funding science studies, just like NSF budgets should not be used for humanities studies.

    So, I agree that it is not fair or correct to assume that anything done by a republican is anti-science.

    But *this* is. I am not saying that there shouldn't be a discussion of funding priorities. I'm just saying it shouldn't be based on superficial reductions of people's research to insulting sound-bytes. This is the M.O. of the Coburn report.

    Polisci and sociology and economics are not science, I agree. But, I don't think that there is a clear cut off, nor do I think it's wise to place one. I am a particle physicist. It doesn't get more "hard science" than that. If anyone should be looking down on the "soft sciences" it should be someone like me. But, the fact is, I have a side interest in "social networking theory" and I've read quite a few papers on it, and the study of organizational dynamics is quantifiable and predictable and insightful, especially with the mass of data from internet behavior to crunch. I think it belongs under the umbrella of real "science". And I think the NSF people who made that call, put a lot of serious thought into it: enough that it is unfair to just dismiss it as "pointless waste".

    Anyway, I think this is a reasonable discussion point. But, I think it is cowardly and unfair for Coburn to belittle, mock, and condescend about these topics.

    I agree that no one can declare with certainty what is science or what science is of value without putting in the intellectual effort to go through the literature on the subject and study the nature of the problems being addressed and the methods being employed. It is my opinion that there is much value AND real, NEW science in the study of the dynamics of social networks and of human (and non-human) interactions. Some of the work being done in thse areas is on par with the best science anywhere; some is, in my eyes, suspect and is mostly by practitioners who do not have a background in the quantitative sciences or in controlled experimentation. There is thus a need for rigorous oversight where public funds are involved, but to dismiss the subjects as "not science" is regrettable. Value judgements are unavoidable when dealing with the allocation of limited funds. Similar value judgements are made when deciding whether the public is well served by pouring billions of dollars into a hole in the ground to confirm the existence of a hypothetical particle of no interest to the average taxpayer or by shooting similar billions into orbit, but no one argues that particle physics and astronomy are "not science." Anything that is not reducible to known physics does not become non-science.
    Both you and Matt are speaking in subjective degrees of tolerance about what is or is not science - a judge would use a common sense litmus test.   Would a judge look at a study of racism on a dating site and say 'that is science'?   Maybe, I doubt it, but if he does but the word 'science' itself loses any meaning.

    Science has already let words like 'theory' become colloquialized to a point where it has no meaning and if that happens to the word 'science' also, the funding problem will become worse for science, not better.   Scientists, in biology and in physics, will be competing with economists, political studies, sociology, gender studies and just about anything else because you are all saying the NSF is right to fund them for $60 million - so why not let them have $600 million.

    I got no dog in that fight - I am not reliant on the government for anything - but I am shocked more people in science aren't more protective of 'science' itself.    Funding is not going to double - that is a fact - so if scientists don't care that up to half the NSF money is squandered on waste and on non-science projects, it is okay by me.   But what can't happen is rationalization that there is no problem and it's all a fabrication by an evil Republican - who happens to be an MD (medicine IS science by the fuzzy definition of science you both throw out there) and a two-time cancer survivor who clearly understands and benefited from science.   Coburn understands what science is and I am sure he is as shocked as anyone that more in science don't understand what it isn't.
    "Would a judge look at a study of racism on a dating site and say 'that is science'? "

    Well actually, for these projects to be funded, multiple judges came to that conclusion. These grant proposals are all assessed both by NSF reviewers and external non-NSF reviewers, likely including folks from varied disciplines. But, given the degree to which Coburn misrepresents pretty much everything in his report, it is pointless to speculate on the merits of that research without obtaining first-hand information.

    "But what can't happen is rationalization that there is no problem and it's all a fabrication by an evil Republican"

    There are plenty of problems with the system. I think anyone in the scientific community would really appreciate a serious report that asks tough questions. This isn't about Coburn's political affiliation. I don't care what his personal history is either. The report is poorly written, even from the standpoint of a political white-paper. It is not so much an analysis as a laundry list of anecdotes, grossly misrepresented, presented without context, and described using loaded sensationalistic language. And, on top of that, it's written with a thoroughly insulting tone.

    You fault the scientific community for being "knee-jerk" about this report, but this was written with the express goal of evoking a knee-jerk reaction. Science funding decisions should not be made based on superficial, snap-judgements. Maybe I'm idealistic for thinking that politicians are capable of better, but I think the science community should fight for highest possible standards of academic integrity from science policy-makers like Coburn.

    "Both you and Matt are speaking in subjective degrees of tolerance about what is or is not science - a judge would use a common sense litmus test. "

    I don't need to be told what science is or isn't. I've dedicated my life to science. I love what I do and I work hard at it. I am not saying I would agree with every call the NSF makes. But, I can't just jump to conclusions without more information. In the entire laundry list of that report, there is little information provided to help me make an informed decision. Allow me to quote the report, in it's own words:

    "Reacting to the study, college student Mahina Wang didn’t sound blown away by this important research."

    Really? Am I supposed to assess the value of research based on a random street interview with an undergraduate who knows nothing of the project?