Scientists Cry Foul Over Report Criticizing National Science Foundation

A new report by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) puts the National Science Foundation "under the microscope." (Image credit: © Danil Chepko |

A report released by the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) distorts the goals and purposes of National Science Foundation-funded (NSF) research in an effort to paint the agency as wasteful, scientists say.

Coburn released "The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope" May 26, raising "serious questions regarding the agency's management and priorities," according to Coburn's office. But scientists whose research is targeted in the report say Coburn has oversimplified or otherwise misrepresented their work. [Infographic: Science Spending in the Federal Budget]

"Good Lord!" Texas A&M psychologist Gerianne Alexander, whose work on hormones and infant development appears in the report, wrote in an email to LiveScience. "The summary of the funded research is very inaccurate."

This isn't the first time politicians have taken aim at the NSF in the name of deficit reduction. In December 2010, Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) called for citizens to review NSF grants and highlighted a few projects he viewed as wasteful, including research meant to evaluate productivity.

NSF's entire budget of approximately $7 billion represents about one-half of 1 percent of the projected 2011 federal deficit.

Funding and review

The new report acknowledges that NSF has funded research leading to innovations ranging from the Internet to bar codes. NSF also runs a rigorous evaluation process when choosing to fund grants. Each year, the agency receives more than 45,000 competitive proposals, NSF spokesperson Maria Zacharias told LiveScience in December. NSF funds about 11,500 of those, Zacharias said.

However, according to a review by Coburn's staff, the senator is unconvinced that NSF is making the right decisions.

"It is not the intent of this report to suggest that there is no utility associated with these research efforts," the report reads. "The overarching question to ask, however, is simple. Are these projects the best possible use of our tax dollars, particularly in our current fiscal crisis?"

Science out of context

Scientists say Coburn's office fails to put their research into context, often choosing silly-sounding projects to characterize entire research programs.

Alexander's work, for example, is characterized as a $480,000 experiment meant to discover "if boys like trucks and girls like dolls." According to the report, scientists could have saved their time by "talking to any new parent."

In fact, Alexander said, the research project is more complicated.

"The grant supports research asking whether the postnatal surge in testosterone levels in early infancy contributes to the development of human behavior," she said. "This is not a trivial issue." [Read: The Truth About Genderless Babies]

That's because some preliminary evidence suggests that disruptions in hormones like testosterone can alter behavior, Alexander said, potentially contributing to the development of disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.

Toy choice is a way to measure sex differences in behavior, because babies tend to choose stereotyped boy-girl toys early on, Alexander said. She and her team measure infant hormone levels and look for effects on behavior, activity levels, temperament and verbal development.

Likewise, a much-ballyhooed project that put shrimp on a treadmill was part of research intended to find out how marine animals will cope with increased environmental stress.

Robot laundry?

Coburn focused much of the report on social science research. But the report also questions several robotics projects, including a robot that can fold laundry. The report mocks the research, noting that it takes the robot 25 minutes to fold a single towel.

In fact, the $1.5 million NSF grant went not to teach robots how to do slow-motion laundry, but to learn how to make robots that can interact with complex objects, said lead researcher Pieter Abbeel of UC Berkeley. The towel-folding, which came six months into a four-year project, was an ideal challenge, Abbeel said, because folding a soft, deformable towel is very different from the pick-up-this-bolt, screw-in-this-screw tasks that current robots can perform.

"Towel-folding is just a first, small step toward a new generation of robotic devices that could, for example, significantly increase the independence of elderly and sick people, protect our soldiers in combat, improve the delivery of government services and a host of other applications that would revolutionize our day-to-day lives," Abbeel wrote in an email to LiveScience.

Overseeing basic science

"It's legitimate to ask what kind of scientific research is important and what isn't," said John Hibbing, a professor of political science whose research on the genetics of political leanings appeared in Coburn's report. However, Hibbing expressed doubt that Coburn's nonscientific review process could meet that goal.

"I sympathize with the desire to identify things that are silly and not useful," Hibbing told LiveScience. "But I'm not sure he's identified a really practical strategy to distinguish between the two."

Coburn's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Hibbing, like the other researchers LiveScience contacted for this article, said no one from Coburn's office contacted him to inquire about his work.  The report's description makes it unclear what Coburn and his staff found objectionable about his research, he said.

"It's simply an effort to understand why people feel the way they do, and especially why people feel so intensely sometimes," Hibbing said, adding that he and his colleagues have been called to meetings with officials from the Department of Justice and the White House's National Security Council to discuss how intense religious and political views can lead to violence and terrorism. [The History of Human Aggression]

Hibbing said it was a "dangerous" idea to base research funding decisions on a cursory review of findings, given that it can be difficult to tell from the early stages of research which avenues will be important.

Abbeel, whose towel-folding robot caught Coburn's attention, agreed.

"The people who have dedicated their lives to these subjects understand what the critics do not: We have taken a very significant step forward," Abbeel said. "This is why assessment of research, particularly that funded by the taxpayer, must consider the entire project and not just one small element that might have tickled the public's imagination."

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.