Smith: Don’t Reward NSF’s Frivolous Use of Taxpayer Money with More Money

May 29, 2014

Washington D.C. – Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) today will offer a joint amendment with House Republican Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to reduce funding for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Social/Behavioral/Economic (SBE) Research Directorate for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15) by over $15 million. The President requested a nearly 6% increase for SBE’s FY15 budget compared to current year spending.  The Smith-Cantor Amendment zeroes out that increase and shifts the funds to be apportioned among the physical sciences, biology, computer science, math and engineering directorates. Further, the Science Committee last evening approved the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act (H.R. 4186) which takes a number of steps to ensure accountability of taxpayer funds at NSF.

Chairman Smith: “The SBE Directorate has funded too many questionable grants.  For example, when the NSF pays a researcher more than $227,000 to thumb through pictures of animals in old National Geographic magazines, taxpayers feel as though the NSF is thumbing its nose at them.  And the NSF refuses to provide information for why these grants are in the national interest. Congress should not reward frivolous use of taxpayer money with even more money.”

Chairman Smith has requested information from the NSF on a number of questionable grants. For example NSF awarded $250,000 through its SBE Directorate to fund a study of public attitudes toward the U.S. Senate filibuster. There have been hundreds of privately and publicly funded studies and polls on this topic that have been conducted with far less taxpayer money. Additional questionable SBE grants include:

  • Oppression and mental health in Nepal          $160,000
  • Tort law/slavery in colonial Peru                     $50,000
  • Regulation of China’s dairy industry             $152,000

But the SBE Directorate isn’t the only source of questionable NSF grants. For instance, NSF has handed out $700,000 for “The Great Immensity,” a climate change musical; $5.6 million to Columbia University for a climate change scavenger hunt and phone game; and $4 million for college students to imagine a utopian future in which everyone is forced to give up eating meat and ride bicycles, while the courts re-distribute property to achieve economic equality.

The FIRST Act requires that the NSF meet minimum standards of public accountability and transparency in its grant funding decisions. Under the FIRST Act, the NSF will be required to publish a justification of each grant’s scientific merits and relevance to the broad national interest. The FIRST Act does not change NSF’s peer review process. But it does expand accountability and requires transparency so that only high quality research receives taxpayer funds.