Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican senator known for his zeal in sifting through legislation and targeting spending items he deems wasteful, has taken aim at the National Science Foundation.
In a new report he describes as "the first comprehensive overview of NSF," Coburn lays out more than $3 billion he sees as wasteful spending and mismanagement at the key science agency and calls for cuts and streamlining.
"There is little, if any, obvious scientific benefit to some NSF projects, such as a YouTube rap video, a review of event ticket prices on stubhub.com, a 'robot hoedown and rodeo,' or a virtual recreation of the 1964/65 New York World's Fair," wrote Coburn, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subpanel on investigations, in an introductory letter.
"Who would disagree the dollars spent on these efforts could not have been better targeted identifying more efficient, renewable fuels, developing the next generation of computers, creating new antibiotics for resistant bacteria, or simply reducing the nation's debt?" he asked.
The report criticizes NSF's oversight of grant funding, saying it has led to mismanagement, fraud and abuse as well as a lack of information about the outcomes of research, and says the agency duplicates efforts with other agencies and is bad at prioritizing projects.
Coburn identified $65 million spent on low-priority projects, $19 million lost to fraud, $1.2 billion in duplicative spending and $1.9 billion in other mismanagement at the agency.
To meet the important goals of keeping the country a world leader in science and technology, he said, the agency should establish clear guidelines for what constitutes the kind of "transformative" or "potentially transformative" research that falls within its mission.
He also called for the elimination of NSF's Social, Behavioral and Economics division, questioning whether "these social sciences represent obvious national priorities that deserve a cut of the same pie" as the physical sciences and arguing that federal work would continue in those fields through funding to the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Coburn also targeted NSF's division for education and human resources, arguing that important federal work on science and math education is spread across multiple agencies and is thus prone to inefficient duplication.
In a recommendation aimed at White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, Coburn said a plan should be developed to streamline the federal research and development budget and reduce duplication.
In a brief statement, NSF officials defended the agency's work.
"The National Science Foundation is renowned for its gold-standard approach to peer review of each of the more than 40,000 proposals it receives each year," officials said. "While no agency is without flaws, NSF 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 Sen. Coburn's report. We believe that no other funding agency in the world comes close to NSF for giving taxpayers the best return on their investment."
Separately, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) yesterday published a report, which it presented at a hearing of Coburn's panel, on duplication in federal programs (E&E Daily, May 26).
The one area of concern flagged by the oversight office was in a listing of areas with potential for duplication, where GAO listed the science agency as one of the several groups working on science and math education.
Click here for Coburn's report.