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

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2013

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.

In a report last year, Mr. Coburn, who has battled with NSF over a number of its funding grants, identified "RoboSquirrel" as one of the most wasteful projects of 2012.

But Rulon Clark, the San Diego State University biology professor who is leading the research, said critics have mischaracterized his project.

"The reason NSF funded our work is that it has broad implications not just for understanding animal communication, but also for understanding the fundamental co-evolutionary dynamic between predators and prey," he said.

He said the robotic squirrel cost just a few hundred dollars to build, and that most of the $390,000 four-year grant goes to support the university or the students who are helping with the research.

"NSF doesn't make funding decisions lightly. Grants are reviewed in gory detail by a panel of experts from around the country who have no personal stake in the research," Mr. Clark said. "They work very hard to identify and fund the projects that have the most significant intellectual merit and broad impacts."

While NSF said it won't revisit existing grants, NIH alerted its grantees last week that it might have to do just that.

"Examples of this impact could include: not issuing continuation awards, or negotiating a reduction in the scope of your awards to meet the constraints imposed by sequestration," NIH told researchers in a March 4 letter. "Additionally, plans for new grants or cooperative agreements may be re-scoped, delayed, or canceled depending on the nature of the work and the availability of resources."

NIH said it funds only 17 percent of proposals it receives, and under the sequester that will drop further.

"I can't tell the difference between a grant that scored at the 12 percentile and one that scored at the 18th percentile. They all look really good when you get down into that zone," Dr. Collins, the NIH director, told reporters.

Other major federal R&D funders also warned of severe impacts.

EPA said it would cut 45 undergraduate and graduate research fellowships, NASA said it would have to delay its research into manned space exploration, and the Energy Department said up to 25,000 researchers at its national laboratories could face cuts.

Advocacy groups have sounded the alarm, rallying researchers to write letters to the editor and to call their members of Congress. But the sequesters appear to be here to stay.

Republicans and Democrats are trying to search for ways to offer flexibility to some agencies, but it's unlikely that would blunt the deepest impacts on research.

President Obama has turned his attention to trying to reach a broad deal that would raise taxes and cut entitlement spending, but it's unclear whether that would restore any of the discretionary funding that has been cut by the sequesters.

That puts the attention back on specific spending decisions by the Obama administration — an area where Mr. Coburn has offered plenty of suggestions.

Last week, he said that even as agencies face furloughs, the federal government posted 2,126 new job openings in the first week of the sequesters. He also has called on agencies to cancel conferences and travel before cutting important services.

Advocacy groups have sounded the alarm, rallying researchers to write letters to the editor and to call their members of Congress. But the sequesters appear to be here to stay.

Republicans and Democrats are trying to search for ways to offer flexibility to some agencies, but it's unlikely that would blunt the deepest impacts on research. And Mr. Obama has turned his attention to trying to reach a broad deal that would raise taxes and cut entitlement spending, but it's unclear whether that would restore any of the discretionary funding that's been cut by the sequesters.

That puts the attention back on specific spending decisions by the Obama administration -- an area where Mr. Coburn has offered plenty of suggestions.

Last week he said that even as agencies face furloughs, the federal government posted 2,126 new job openings in the first week of the sequesters. And he has called on agencies to cancel conferences and travel before cutting important services.

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