One of the things government should do is invest in basic scientific research. But the upcoming budget sequester will fall on the just and unjust alike. Assuming 10% cuts across the board in discretionary spending, the National Science Foundation will lose roughly $700 million from its annual $7 billion budget. We should probably be increasing the NSF budget by $700 million — but only if it is spent wisely and to truly extend the frontiers of important science. In a 2011 study of the NSF, Senator Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican, claims to have found more than $3 billion in waste and duplication. Among the more egregious examples:
– $80,000 study on why the same teams always dominate March Madness;
– $315,000 study suggesting playing FarmVille on Facebook helps adults develop and maintain relationships;
– $1 million for an analysis of how quickly parents respond to trendy baby names;
– $50,000 to produce and publicize amateur songs about science, including a rap called “Money 4 Drugz,” and a misleading song titled “Biogas is a Gas, Gas, Gas”;
– $2 million to figure out that people who often post pictures on the internet from the same location at the same time are usually friends; and
– $581,000 on whether online dating site users are racist.
– Hundreds of millions of dollars lost to ineffective contracting;
– $1.7 billion in unspent funds sitting in expired, undisbursed grant accounts;
– At least $3 million in excessive travel funds
– A lack of accountability or program metrics to evaluate expenditures.
Clearly there is room for some budget tightening. And while the NSF will suffer an across-the-board cut, the agency itself should be pickier. How about axing the $250 million a year in NSF dough spent by its Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate, a source of many of the more outrageous studies? Henry Miller of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution says the SBE “would be an obvious place to begin that rethinking. Its programs need to be both trimmed and reorganized, and peer-review needs to be more effective. According to a former senior official, ‘When the social sciences grants were part of the Biology Directorate they were embedded in a culture of scientific rigor and in competition with strong science [in other disciplines]. When they split off on their own the inmates took over the asylum and their world became quite insular.’”