Critical report stokes debate over National Science Foundation

By Julian Spector

A report scrutinizing the budget and conduct of the National Science Foundation may be called into question itself.

In late May, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., released a report criticizing the budget and conduct of the NSF. Among numerous other researchers, the report references three Duke U. scientists as using taxpayer dollars to conduct work of questionable scientific value. Coburn said the purpose of his report—titled “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope”—is to scrutinize the NSF by shedding light on wasteful practices such as the misuse of federal funds.

The report quickly drew fierce criticism from scientists who said Coburn oversimplified or misrepresented their research and prompted questions about how NSF funding should be distributed. According to the NSF website, the NSF accounts for about 20 percent of federal support to academic institutions for basic research.

Becky Bernhardt, a spokesperson for Coburn, wrote in an email that the study was not intended as an attack on researchers, but as a means to promote discussion about the federal budget. She noted that the NSF needs to consider budgetary concerns when awarding research grants.

“The real question should be: Would taxpayers want their money to go toward studies that have not had some positive effect on the field, no matter how small the transformation?” she said.

According to the report, NSF funds are being misspent on romantic getaways for NSF employees and fraudulent uses by recipients.

“A dollar lost to mismanagement, fraud, inefficiency or a dumb project is a dollar that could have advanced scientific discovery,” Coburn stated in the report.

The report also lists a number of “Questionable NSF Projects.” These include J. A. Jones Distinguished Professor Adrian Bejan’s work on “Constructal Theory on Social Dynamics,” which addresses why colleges with top basketball programs draw the best recruits and received a grant of $79,988 from the NSF. Andrew Sweeting, assistant professor in Duke’s department of economics, evaluated when buying a recreational ticket is most economical and received $259,216 from the NSF. Coburn does not name the researcher for a third Duke study about the American public’s attitudes about war, but the link cited identifies him as political science professor Christopher Gelpi, whose project received $91,601 from the NSF.

These three cases are indicative of the rest of Coburn’s examples in that, of the 359 citations in the report, Coburn predominantly draws from NSF award abstracts and press releases rather than the actual research he criticizes.

Bernhardt said the sources used reflected the purpose of the report.

“The report uses NSF as its first degree reference because the objective of this report is not to attack the researcher but to draw attention to the NSF—to be able to identify potential trends or mismanagement and offer suggestions for improvement,” she said.

The quality of research for the report represents one factor that has led to criticism from a host of scientific publications, and some of the “questionable” researchers themselves.

Sweeting wrote in an email that Coburn misrepresented his work by reporting it based on the NSF online magazine article and promotional video that focused on one particular example of his research.

“What happened is that NSF made a little video as part of a series designed to appeal to a very broad audience, which made a big point of a small result in my research,” Sweeting said. “Senator Coburn’s staff obviously saw it and thought that was what I do, without coming to ask me or NSF what my funded research is about.”

Bejan also said he was never contacted by Coburn’s office.

“The short version of the truth is that Senator Coburn’s text about me is a complete fabrication,” Bejan wrote in an email. “I never had NSF funding to study ‘March Madness’…. I never had an NSF grant to study the hierarchy of basketball.”

Bejan said the March Madness example Coburn used to characterize Bejan’s research program came from a 2011 journal article about “the natural design of rigid hierarchy,” which Bejan said is unrelated to NSF funds he received previously. From 2004 to 2006 he was awarded a grant to develop a new undergraduate course on “principles of design in nature and engineering.” That course led to a book titled “Design with Constructal Theory,” which is now taught universities around the globe, Bejan added.

He noted that the NSF’s selection process is rigorous.

“It’s so competitive, it’s so cutthroat,” he said in a June 21 interview. “Anybody who insinuates that the NSF is throwing money away is basically either a liar or ignorant…. We [grant recipients] are the opposite of the fat cats and drunks portrayed in this report.”

In the NSF grant process, groups of expert peer reviewers critique and rate written proposals, according to the NSF Grant Proposal Guide. Their recommendations are further reviewed by program officers and ultimately division directors. The process usually takes about six months.

“The numbers are so against you,” Bejan said. ”They have so little money that they do not give it to projects that are not worthy.”

Bejan agrees with Coburn in at least one respect—they each said that money is being wasted. Coburn’s report describes waste in undisbursed grants, poor grant administration, duplication of scientific efforts across many government programs and questionable choices of research funding. Bejan said the NSF increasingly focuses on large group research projects at the expense of independent investigators.

“Ideas occur in the mind and the mind belongs to the individual and so for the NSF, if it wants to produce more ideas per unit of support, the answer is very simple—help those few who demonstrated that they are creative, not for factories of the so-called knowledge industry,” he said.

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