Coburn's NSF Idiocy

There's been a lot of discussion about the report released by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) alleging waste and fraud by the National Science Foundation (NSF), including posts by Dr. O, Steve Silberman, Namnezia, NeuroDojo, The Prodigal Academic, and Stephanie Pappas. The first thing to realize about Tom Coburn is that he's a full-blown wackaloon--in 2004, Coburn was warning us about the looming lesbian threat:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The Republican Senate candidate in Oklahoma warns of "rampant" lesbianism in some schools in the state in a tape released Monday by his Democratic opponent.

The remark by Republican Tom Coburn drew a skeptical response from state educators.

"I don't believe that," said Keith Ballard, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. He said the group's attorneys "haven't said anything to me about that."

In the tape released by the campaign of Brad Carson, the Democratic candidate, Coburn says a campaign worker from Coalgate told him that "lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl go to the bathroom. Now think about it. Think about that issue. How is it that that's happened to us?"

Joe McCulley, school superintendent in Coalgate, chuckled when asked about Coburn's remark.

"He knows something I don't know. We have not identified anything like that. We have not had to deal with any issues on that subject - ever," McCulley said.

I'll return to this, but, for now, consider the source as a relative who was a newspaper editor used to say. But before getting into the weeds, there are some general errors in the report.

We'll gloss over the whole deficit-framing: after all, it was largely the Bush tax cuts and the Bush Medicare Part D giveaway that exploded the deficit, along with our excellent Iraqi and Afghan adventures--idiocies which Coburn supported lock, stock, and barrel (and his larger failure to understand that public debt results in private savings is simply flat-earth economics; worrying about budget deficits per se is foolish as I've discussed many times before*).

The whole assault on the social sciences indicates that Coburn and his staff don't know very much about the 'hard' sciences. I'm certain there are molecular biology and physics projects that didn't pan out--I'm even sure there are a few projects for which the decision to fund them was, to be charitable, puzzling. But molecular biology and physics are difficult--might even involve math! With letters! So they don't get ripped by Coburn, while the social sciences which, at a superficial level are far easier for the non-scientist to understand, do get ripped (they also just don't seem as 'sciencey' to some). For rebuttals of criticisms of specific projects, see Steve Silberman, NeuroDojo, and Stephanie Pappas.

Coburn also doesn't seem to understand how science funding actually works. He accuses NSF of leaving "$1.7 billion in limbo." (Pity the poor souls of all those dollars). But, as one NSF official explained, this is just dead wrong:

The biggest "savings" that Coburn identifies is actually a misreading of federal statutes, according to NSF officials. The report accuses NSF of failing to recover $1.7 billion in "expired grants," that is, money grantees didn't spend in the course of doing their research. But that's not true, says NSF. The number reflects all the money that has been obligated for multiyear grants, and the amount (as of last fall) drops as researchers tap their accounts over the duration of their project. "It's being used for exactly the purpose for which it was intended," explains one budget official who requested anonymity.

Only a tiny amount--roughly $30 million a year--is actually left on the table once a researcher has finished his or her project. And that amount is returned each year to the Treasury. "You'd think a U.S. senator would understand how the federal government funds multiyear research projects," says one lobbyist.

One would also think a U.S. Senator wouldn't actually believe there is a rampaging lesbian menace in our schools, but one would be wrong about that too. Speaking of which, this brings us to the moral turpitude part of the report. It's not actually call that, but Coburn's report focuses on two things: misuse by staff of NSF computers to watch porn, and a jello wrestling incident at McMurdo station (complete with a picture!). Never mind that the porny guy was forced to retire, and the contractor responsible for the jello wrestling was fired. This is how things are supposed to work: a small percentage of people screw up, and they are dealt with accordingly. But that's the plotline for all of the scandals (pp. 17-19; pp. 28-50): someone engages in malfeasance, NSF takes corrective action (often harsh), and NSF...has...done...something...wrong? I'm not sure what else NSF is supposed to do. I guess NSF is guilty of not using precognitive psychics to identify precrime. Oh wait, that's science fiction. Silly Mad Biologist. Finally, the report discusses the "Polar Plunge", a skinny dipping excursion. Why someone would want to jump butt nekkid into freezing water escapes me, but if everyone involved is a consenting adult (and isn't doing it on work time), who cares? Coburn should stick with imaginary lesbian menaces.

Finally, what really gets me is the claim that having multiple agencies involved in the same areas is duplicative. First, even when the effort is actually duplicative, having different panels of experts means that novel ideas are more likely to get funded--one panel might decide the proposal is unworthy, whereas a panel in a different agency might see things differently. Second, what appears to be duplicative often isn't. NSF and NIH both fund microbial genomics, but which organisms are sequenced and for what purposes differ between the two organizations. Even at a very fine scale, such as E. coli evolution, the two organizations typically won't fund the same kinds of projects.

The Prodigal Academic summarizes what's wrong with the report:

Having flipped through the report, it mostly consists of mocking different research projects as wastes of money. Given that most of the great industrial basic research labs are gone, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the last major funder of basic research in many fields in the US. It makes me very sad to see all this ink spilled on attacking the NSF, considering that the entire annual NSF budget is a rounding error on what the US spends annually in Iraq and Afghanistan for results much less likely to be relevant to US taxpayers. I totally agree with Dr. O here--if Senator Colburn has a problem with how NSF funds are being spent, he should have requested hearings or reports from the program managers at NSF, or called on eminent scientists in the field to determine why these projects were funded. It is pretty easy to pick apart many basic research projects based on just the title or abstract (which focus on the work to be done, not on where the work fits in the big picture of the field). It is much harder to predict which projects will be the ones that lead to key breakthroughs ahead of time, which is why they call it research.

But that would mean Coburn wouldn't be able to tell stories about waste and immorality.

And that's the point of the whole exercise.

*This is why scientists need to understand economics, even if you find it boring.

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By Katharine (not verified) on 31 May 2011 #permalink

Whoever wrote this will never be a scientist, that is for sure! If you did some research you would know Coburn did NOT support Medicare Part D and wasn't even a member of Congress when it was passed. Likewise, he was not a member of Congress when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were authorized. Furthermore, he has voted against the funding bills for those wars when they were not paid for. I will just conclude by saying spending half a million dollars to study shrimp run on a treadmill, especially when we have a $14 trillion debt, 9% unemployment and millions of Americans without health insurance, IS stupid and outrageous.


If you did some research you would know Coburn did NOT support Medicare Part D and wasn't even a member of Congress when it was passed. Likewise, he was not a member of Congress when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were authorized.

It is perfectly possible to support things "lock, stock and barrel" without being a member of Congress, you know.

And if "spending half a million dollars to study shrimp run on a treadmill" contributes toward the preservation rather than extermination of shrimp stocks, I'd say that was half a million dollars well spent.

"lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl go to the bathroom. Now think about it. Think about that issue. How is it that that's happened to us?"

Just think about it. Think long and hard. I just can't stop thinking about it. So hard to stop thinking about it. So hard.