Jun 1st, 2011 by Nick
In this report (pdf), Oklahoma Senator Tom A. Coburn identifies “over $3 billion in mismanagement at NSF”. Newspapers such as The Washington Times focused on McMurdo jell-o wrestling as a particularly egregious and ridiculous waste of taxpayer dollars.
Senator Coburn’s report describes:
In their spare time NSF employees have been jello-wrestling in Antarctica at the NSF research station McMurdo station (picture is taken from the event). NSF spends $451 million annually through its Office of Polar Programs to support research efforts in Antarctica and the Arctic. The organizer of the jello-wrestling event was fired for the offense. In an email he sent to the entire staff after his dismissal, he is reported to have referred to NSF as “fun nazis,” and claimed that he was “terminated for having harmless jello wrestling.” In the email, he also mentioned that many participated in a “Polar Plunge,” a skinny-dipping excursion, just hours before the jello event. He mentioned the plunge “had plenty of nudity but no one got fired or reprimanded for doing that!” News reports indicate that the entire staff at the base was lectured on their moral failure, citing activities involving nudity.
Whether, as a taxpayer, you are for or against jell-o wrestling at Antarctic stations, the jell-o involved probably did not cost more than a few hundred bucks. Additionally, knowing McMurdo, the jell-o was probably expired and unfit for human consumption. (Premium Jell-o for wrestling purposes is available at: Jellowrestling.com). But it is admittedly a distracting story. BigDeadPlace.com is cited as a source for the jell-o wrestling story in the Senate report, a story more fun and outrageous than some of the other stories of waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars highlighted on BDP, stories that Senator Coburn conveniently ignored, perhaps because they involve Senator boondoggles and fraud from corporate constituents.
Here are some of the stories:
Various Washington-types come down every year. They add nothing to The Program, unless by the butt-licking NSF gives them on the ice, they see fit to raise NSF’s budget (or at the very least, not cut it.) To this end, planes normally dedicated to science or logistic schedules ferry these needy dignitaries around, and helicopters shuttle them to the airfield. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but these diverted resources could certainly buy a lot of jell-o.
Even assuming that McMurdo’s thieving contractors defrauded innocent taxpayers of a few hundred dollars worth of expired jell-o, that money is conscientiously re-extracted from the employees on a daily or weekly basis by Raytheon Polar Services Company, who won’t put up with such nonsense on their watch. As a reward to themselves for their vigilance, RPSC employs numerous accounting tricks so they can send their Denver employees to theme parks and buy towers of chocolate and ice sculptures for nebulous purposes.
Since Antarctica is more interesting and exotic than many other places, the narrative makes sense: $100 wasted in Antarctica is more fascinating (and thus more outrageous) than $100,000 wasted in Denver or $1,000,000 wasted in Washington. It’s a useful distraction to show corporate contractors rassling in jell-o rather than Senators flying first-class to international banquets.
Despite Senator Coburn’s self-interested omissions, his report is still humorous and valuable. Some highlights:
“A senior manager at NSF went on 47 trips in a two and a half year period with a direct subordinate, at a total cost of $144,152 in NSF funds.”
“A research center employee used her position to steer contracts towards a particular business in return for a cut of their contract money. As a result, the business received $270,000 worth of contracts. Later, the same employee set up a fake company to make bids on contracts. She received over $450,000 in business for those contracts.”
“A Georgia university used NSF funds to take students on bowling and amusement park trips. The university also funded non-NSF projects with NSF funds. The restitution amount of $500,000 was reached in a settlement agreement.”
“”The University of Notre Dame terminated a tenured electrical engineering professor because he “improperly spent more than $190,000 in federal grant money and matching university funds to buy cameras and accessories to take pornographic pictures.””
Senator Coburn continues with Questionable NSF Projects:
“A $315,000 NSF study suggests playing FarmVille on Facebook helps adults develop and maintain relationships.”
“Armed with a $1 million grant from the NSF, researchers at Indian University-Bloomington and New York University analyzed baby names to determine trends in parents’ naming decisions. Their conclusion: popular names are popular with parents.”
“NSF provided the $50,000 grant to Dr. Wendy Silk at the University of California-Davis to develop a website featuring songs about science. Dr. Silk used this funding to partner with co-investigator Dr. Gregory Crowther to create www.singaboutscience.org.”
“Science Nation, the NSF online magazine recently featured a Duke University research project that evaluated the best times to purchase tickets to a sold-out sporting events.”
“How long can a shrimp run on a treadmill? Scientist put shrimp on a tiny treadmill to determine if sickness impaired the mobility of the crustaceans. Researchers at the Grice Marine Laboratory at the College of Charleston, South Carolina have received at least 12 NSF grants totaling over $3 million over the last decade for their work, including a $559,681 award “Impaired Metabolism and Performance in Crustaceans Exposed to Bacteria.”
“Can you trust other people in virtual worlds? The NSF funded the New School University to study “the ways in which people voluntarily develop ‘virtual civility’ and trustworthy identities in 3-dimensional virtual communities such as Second Life.” The $150,000 grant is titled, “Virtual Civility, Trust, and Avatars.””
“The Office of Polar Programs funds an “Antarctic Artists and Writers Program” which is of limited scientific value. According to NSF, the purpose of the program “is to enable serious writings and works of art that exemplify the Antarctic heritage of humankind. In particular, the program seeks to increase public understanding of the Antarctic region, including the continent and the surrounding oceans, as well as the associated research and education endeavors.” In order to facilitate their work, the program “provides opportunities for professional artists and writers to travel to Antarctica—at research stations, field camps, and aboard ships—to make the observations necessary to complete their proposed projects.””
I understand why some scientists are barking at the intruder to protect the hand that feeds them, but I am more surprised to see Antarctic contractors doing the same. Can one of you step up and explain why you are defending NSF?
In my experience as an Antarctic contractor, NSF is simply another unwieldy bureaucracy with no ethical considerations, with intentionally opaque policies, and actions that are sometimes criminal. I have personally seen them poignantly navigate several breaches of contract, purposefully mislead the media, and even expose a whole crew of workers to asbestos without so much as an apology (while they were simultaneously issuing a grant to researchers studying asbestos lawsuits in California!)
Senator Coburn (who is a member of The Promise Keepers) is playing a soft game. His report is full of simplifications. But I agree with him 100% that the National Science Foundation should be kept under the microscope.
Tom Coburn’s voting record
Tom Coburn’s PAC contributions