Sequester spending: Feds pay $227,000 to study magazine photographs

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Some of the toughest sequester spending decisions involve taxpayer-financed research, where funding today can produce huge benefits tomorrow — but can the government really afford to spend $227,437 to study pictures of animals in National Geographic magazines?

That is one of the 164 grants the National Science Foundation approved last week as it sought to balance its research mission with less funding that means the independent agency will award about 1,000 fewer projects with taxpayer money this year.

The federal government is a major source of financial backing, including $140 billion for research and development alone this year, spread across everything from astrophysics at NASA and defense technology from the Pentagon, to political science from NSF and the latest biomedical research from the National Institutes of Health.

But now, many of those on the receiving end are preparing for cutbacks, and those who do the spending are trying to figure out where to trim.

“I worry deeply about this. I worry deeply that we are putting an entire generation of scientists at risk by the very significant difficulty they see in obtaining support,” Dr. Francis S. Collins, NIH director, told reporters in the run-up to the sequesters. “A number of our most talented young scientists will basically desire to do something else, or perhaps to do it somewhere else.”

Like most government programs subject to the sequesters, there will be plenty of second-guessing about what gets spared and what gets cut from the government’s research budget.

The 164 grants NSF approved last week amounted to more than $43 million in new funding this year. The number is actually higher than the pre-sequester average, when NSF approved about 140 grants a week in the current year.

For most taxpayers, the list of projects funded is way beyond their comprehension: “Linking Foraging Behaviors to Demography to understand Albatrosses Population Responses to Climate Change,” at $605,543; “How to Fall from Trees: Biomechanics and Ecology of Gliding Flight in Arthropods,” at $28,526; or “Geodesy Revealing the Earth in Action,” which at $2.4 million was the highest-dollar grant last week.

Some projects, though, do seem understandable — such as “Picturing Animals in National Geographic, 1888-2008,” which is designed to look at how the esteemed magazine has used animal photos.

“The evolving visual depiction of animals will be interpreted, taking into account scientific changes, natural history, environmental history, and the new aesthetic sensibilities provided by the history of landscape and environmental photography and by situating the magazine and its photographers, editors and photographic conventions in their broader historical, cultural and political contexts,” chief investigator Linda Kalof said in the abstract for the two-year project, which this week was awarded $227,437.

Ms. Kalof, a professor at Michigan State University, was on jury duty this week and unable to answer questions about the award.

An NSF spokeswoman said all projects go through a peer review panel and those scores are used to determine what gets funded, though she said she couldn’t provide the review.

For now, the agency has said it won’t rescind money for existing grants.

That doesn’t go over well with Sen. Tom Coburn, the top waste-watcher in Congress, who last week posted a Twitter message about one project he had criticized that included building a robotic squirrel and testing under what conditions a rattlesnake would strike at it.

“Robot Squirrel lives as NSF will pay all grants,” Mr. Coburn tweeted, including a picture of the robotic squirrel under a bold, red “Sequester this” stamp.

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