Setting the Record Straight: The Coburn Report on NSF Riddled with Inaccuracies

On May 26th, Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK) released an “oversight report” which purported to raise “serious questions regarding the [NSF] management and priorities. The report identified more than $1.2 billion the National Science Foundation (NSF) has lost due to waste, fraud, duplication and mismanagement and an additional $1.7 billion in unspent funds.”  The report, entitled “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope”, provided what it considered examples of the more than $3 billion in waste and duplication.  It did so by selecting studies with funny-sounding names and superficial examinations of research that, when looked at with an uncritical eye, seemed wasteful. The report was enthusiastically picked up by ABC news and other media outlets.

It used examples including: an $80,000 study on why the same teams always dominate March Madness; a $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; and a $50,000 grant 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”.  Sounds goofy, right?  Spending taxpayer money on such nefarious silliness, and during a recession no less – wasteful!  Then, of course, there were the soundbites on projects that put shrimps on treadmills and had robots doing laundry.

On June 23, Senator Coburn testified about his report before a Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, reiterating the claims listed in the report.

Not so fast Doctor/Senator Coburn.  It turns out that the staffers who compiled the report which garnered so much attention – the “gotcha” moment that so many peddled as a legitimate heir to the “Golden Fleece Award” of Senator William Proxmire – didn’t do their homework.  At all.

After the Coburn report hit the airwaves, so did the backlash.  “Good Lord!” Texas A&M psychologist Gerianne Alexander, whose work on hormones and infant development appears in the report, wrote in an email to LiveScience. “The summary of the funded research is very inaccurate.”  And what about the towel-folding robots?  Turns out the $1.5 million NSF grant went not to teach robots how to do slow-motion laundry, but to learn how to make robots that can interact with complex objects, according to lead researcher Pieter Abbeel of UC Berkeley. According to Abbeel, “The towel-folding, which came six months into a four-year project, was an ideal challenge because folding a soft, deformable towel is very different from the pick-up-this-bolt, screw-in-this-screw tasks that current robots can perform.”  Despite the evidence that the Coburn staffers didn’t bother to even contact the principal investigators whose work they profiled in their report, they continued to stand by it.

The next salvo against the report was lobbed on July 5th.  The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Minority staff released a report it authored for the Committee’s Ranking Member, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-30th TX), eviscerating the Coburn report completely.  The staff identified the PIs in 52 of the projects called out in the Coburn report and sent them a simple, 5 question survey to fill out and return to them.  They yielded a 75% return rate.  The survey asked if anyone from Senator Coburn’s office contacted them to inquire about the nature of your research or how the NSF funds were being spent.  Guess how many of the 39 who responded had been contacted?  NONE OF THEM.

Staff also asked the PIs if they felt that the characterization of their work by Senate staff was accurate. 33 respondents said the characterization was inaccurate; 4 responses did not allow for a clear determination of an answer; 2 respondents agreed that the summary was accurate, but with fundamental reservations (“accurate, but radically incomplete”; “accurate but incomplete”).  If this were a batting average, someone would surely get traded.

Not only did the Senate staffers not do their science homework – not a surprise given American student science and math scores lately – but they fundamentally misunderstood or misread both law and the NSF grantmaking process.  The $1.7 billion in unexpended funds the report identified as belonging to “unspent, expired grants”?  Turns out the money represents the amount that NSF grantees have been awarded but have not yet spent.  According to the House Minority report, “Although NSF has made the awards and has recorded the obligations, the disbursement rate will typically occur over multiple years due to the nature of science and engineering research and consistent with project budgets agreed to at the time of the award.”

Thus far, I don’t see that the House Minority report has gotten nearly the attention that the original Coburn report garnered.  I suppose a Federal agency, one that the House Minority staff refers to as being “one of the best managed agencies in the Federal government, with very low overhead and a very aggressive Inspector General working to keep NSF focused on those areas that need improvement”, doesn’t make for very good news.  It’s a shame that Senator/Doctor Coburn squandered all the attention he got to ridicule good science instead of touting it to the world as an example of American leadership.

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