Senator Recommends Elimination of NSF SBE Directorate: Advocates Responding

June 8, 2011

By Paula Skedsvold

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn released the latest in a series of “oversight reports” prepared by his office, a report that is highly critical of the National Science Foundation. In an open letter to taxpayers on the first page of the report, he states that NSF has made significant contributions to scientific discovery, but “the bad news is a significant percentage of your money is going to what most Americans will consider fraud, waste and abuse, and there are many areas where NSF could contribute far more with better management and smarter targeting of resources.”

According to the report, key findings of the “comprehensive overview” of NSF are:

  • NSF has an important mission and contributes to meaningful scientific discovery, but there are pervasive problems at the agency.
  • NSF lacks adequate oversight of its grant funding, which has led to mismanagement, fraud, abuse and lack of knowledge regarding research outcomes.
  • NSF is prone to extensive duplication within the agency and across the federal government.
  • NSF wastes millions of dollars on low-priority projects.

The problem with the report is that it identifies a number of management problems that are very old (some almost 17 years old) and have been addressed by NSF. NSF is also cited for failing to recover $1.7 billion in “expired grants” but the money reflects funds that have been obligated for multi-year grants.

Of particular concern to the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) science community is the recommendation to eliminate the SBE Directorate. Presumably, the recommendation is based on a review of almost 50 “questionable” awards which are briefly described in the report.

Although approximately 20 awards were funded by SBE (the largest portion in political science), 25 or so awards were not. At least 13 of the awards were funded by the Directorate for Computer & Information Science and Engineering (CISE), and the questionable awards were funded by every NSF directorate except Geosciences. This inconsistency undermines the objectivity of the report.

The SBE Directorate funds research directed at understanding problems of a human nature, research that lies at the core of many challenges this nation faces in defense, intelligence, education, and health. The SBE Directorate also supports the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, which collects and analyzes data to produce reports on the nation’s science and engineering enterprise, as well as an initiative to measure the impact of federal investments in science.

More troubling, however, is that entire programs of research are called into question based on a cursory understanding of that body of work and how it will contribute to advances in basic science knowledge. Senator Coburn states in the report that “I hope NSF and the scientific community will welcome this oversight and offer insights into how to better prioritize our nation’s limited financial resources to advance science….”

It is certainly Senator Coburn’s role (as that of his colleagues) to provide oversight of federal spending. Indeed, Senator Coburn has spent considerable time working with his colleagues to address the nation’s debt and deficits. FABBS is working with scientists in Oklahoma and elsewhere to communicate the value of SBE research to Congress and the public. A candid conversation between the Senator and scientists about the research would be helpful and may help demonstrate its value for the American people and Oklahoma.

Read the full report prepared by Coburn »