The Senate’s top waste watcher, in a new report Thursday, said taxpayer money has gone to funding jello wrestling in the Antarctic, to testing the exercise ability of shrimp on a treadmill and to a laundry-folding robot - all funded by the National Science Foundation.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said he identified more than $3 billion in mismanagement at NSF, ranging from questionable studies to exorbitant operating costs, and in some cases the agency duplicates the operations of other agencies.
At a time when the government is struggling with record deficits, he said the agency is an example of the kinds of spending taxpayers should not tolerate.
“There is little, if any, obvious scientific benefit to some NSF projects, such as a YouTube rap video, a review of event ticket prices on stubhub.com, a ‘robot hoedown and rodeo,’ or a virtual recreation of the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair,” Mr. Coburn wrote to taxpayers in introducing the 73-page report, which has more than 350 footnotes.
In one instance, he said NSF employees, in their spare time, engaged in a jello-wrestling contest at the agency’s McMurdo research station in Antarctica. In another instance, the agency paid $559,681 to test sick shrimps’ metabolism, which one researcher said was “the first time that shrimp have been exercised on a treadmill.”
Mr. Coburn’s report noted that the researchers found sick shrimp “did not perform as well and did not recover as well from exercise as healthy shrimp.”
An NSF spokeswoman said they have a “gold-standard approach to peer review” for the projects they spend money on.
“While no agency is without flaws, NSF has been diligent about addressing concerns from members of Congress about workforce and grant management issues, and NSF’s excellent record of tracking down waste and prosecuting wrongdoing is apparent from Sen. Coburn’s report,” spokeswoman Dana Topousis said.
“We believe that no other funding agency in the world comes close to NSF for giving taxpayers the best return on their investment.”
Mr. Coburn’s report makes clear that the agency itself cracked down on some of the problems, including firing the organizer of the Antarctic jello-wrestling event. The entire staff was lectured about the incident.
In emails, several people who had been at NSF’s McMurdo Station said the time, effort and jello involved in the wrestling were paid for by contract employees for Raytheon Polar Services, not employees of NSF, and said the event was held outside of work time.
The NSF <$>has an annual budget of $6.9 billion, and accounts for about one-fifth of all national taxpayer-funded research at colleges and universities.
Mr. Coburn, in his report, said audits of NSF show it regularly fails to meet management goals. One audit, from 2005, found almost half of the reports the agency is required to file were either submitted either late, or never submitted.
The senator has clashed with NSF before. In 2009, he wrote legislation to eliminate NSF’s funding for political science research, arguing that political commentary is available for free on cable news networks already. He lampooned several research projects as a waste of money. His amendment was defeated 62-32.