Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, recently published a 73-page report entitled The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope criticizing the National Science Foundation (NSF) for wasteful spending of public tax dollars on “silly grants” and redundant research. He also accused the NSF of failing to recover unspent money on “expired grants.”
The National Science Foundation is the only federal government agency that funds basic scientific research and education in all fields of science, as opposed to applied research. In other words, the research is designed to reveal how things work but does not have to have an immediate application. The freedom to discover without the myopic limits imposed by applied research is what drives innovation and creative out-of-the-box thinking. Science, both applied and pure basic research, is the foundation of our country’s economic well-being. Thus NSF funding is crucial to the discovery and development of cutting-edge technologies. Long term benefit to society is implied.
Not every scientist fully appreciates the work of those in other disciplines. University science departments are often split politically, ideologically and even physically over differences of opinion, for example between experimental laboratory scientists who dissect processes at the molecular level versus field scientists who draw conclusions from observing nature. Some scientists might not consider the social, behavioral and economic sciences to be real science or as worthy of funding as their own. If Senator Coburn gets his way, these disciplines will be removed from the NSF budget.
The NSF currently is operating under a continuing resolution because its 2011 appropriation was not enacted in a timely fashion. The fiscal year 2010 Enacted budget level was $6,872.51 million, excluding $54 million that were appropriated to the U.S. Coast Guard. The requested budget for fiscal year 2012 is $7,767.00 million. Based on U.S. government spending in the first quarter of 2011, the U.S. spends $5.394 trillion per year. So even the requested NSF budget is a teeny fraction, just 0.14%, of total U.S. spending. Surely if the government is guilty of wasteful spending, greater pots of waste can be found elsewhere.
One issue under fire by Senator Coburn’s report is that of “expired grants.” Other agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have a “use it or lost it” funding philosophy. Once a grant proposal is selected for funding and the budget is determined, the principal investigator must spend the full amount requested before the projected end date of the project or lose access to the money. A project might receive funding for three years, but research doesn’t stop the moment the last dollar is transferred from funding agency to scientist. Most projects continue long after one funding source is spent, some for a lifetime. Nor is it possible to predict with absolute certainty the milestones of research progress and corresponding spending requirements. A project beset with technical difficulties early on still needs funds whether or not every experiment has been completed and every dollar spent by the grant’s projected end date. It is wasteful of the government to ask for money back just because the calendar has reached a certain date.
What this “use it or lose it” philosophy does is to encourage haste and waste. Close to the end of a funding cycle, research labs often go on spending sprees so as not to lose the budgeted money. Wouldn’t it be more wise to encourage frugality so the money can be spent on what is needed when it is needed, even if this means letting a scientist keep the money and use his or her best judgment to complete the project? Suggesting otherwise is short-sighted.
The National Science Foundation under attack does things differently. If at the “end” of a grant money is unspent, a principal investigator can request a “no-cost extension.” In other words, at no additional cost to the NSF, the scientist can extend the end date of a grant so the funds can be spent in a more efficient and productive way. This makes scientific and economic sense.
Senator Tom Coburn, the author of the unflattering investigation of NSF spending, is an M.D., not a scientist. He is not a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space, so why did he conduct this investigation? Perhaps he should focus on health care reform instead.
Is there a doctor in the House…or Senate? Find your Representatives’ educational backgrounds here.
National Science Foundation FY 2012 Budget Request to Congress, February 14, 2011
The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope oversight report
U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation website
U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space website
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology website
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Copyright © 2011 Donna Marykwas; All rights reserved.