Ranking Member Johnson Releases Staff Report on NSF Spending

Jul 27, 2011

Today, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, the Ranking Minority Member of the Committee, released a staff report on the National Science Foundation (NSF).  That report critically evaluates a recent Senate staff report on the NSF which claimed that the agency had wasted or mismanaged $3 billion in federal funds.

Ms. Johnson said, “A report was recently released by Senator Coburn’s office that claimed that NSF had mismanaged or wasted $3 billion.  If true, that would represent a shocking failure by one of the nation’s premier science agencies, so I asked our Democratic Committee staff to carefully review the report’s findings.  What they found was that the claims were unsubstantiated—and reflected a misunderstanding of appropriations law, grant management practices, and the actual findings of Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports.”

“I am sure that the Senate staff report was intended to be an important, detailed review of NSF,” continued Ranking Member Johnson, “but in the end, our Committee staff could find almost no actual savings in the report.  NSF does not have $1.7 billion that they can return to the Treasury.  The report offers no proof that NSF has $1.2 billion in programs that are duplicative with those of other agencies.  Finally the claim by the report’s authors that they could find $65 million in questionable research projects appears to be built on a very superficial examination of the awards—in fact, it appears that at least four of the cited studies were not even funded by NSF.”  

“It is important to engage in a serious discussion of those areas of federal spending where we can save money.  However, that dialogue—and our subsequent decisions—should be rooted in the facts.  The allegations in the Senate staff report were very, very serious, but they turn out to be mistaken.  As a result, there is no information in the report that can help inform Congress’s decisions about NSF funding and priorities.”

Science, Space, and Technology Committee staff contacted NSF to verify that the report’s claim of $1.7 billion in funds that could be returned to the Treasury was mistaken; instead, that amount actually represents funds already committed for multi-year grants.  The claim that there is $1.2 billion in duplicative programs is not backed up in the Senate staff report by either analysis or the GAO study cited in the report.  Committee staff also polled the researchers who could be identified in the Senate staff report to find out what they thought of the report’s characterization of their research.  Committee staff found that not one of the researchers who responded to Committee staff questions had ever been contacted by Senate staff about the work cited in the Senate staff report.

Further, virtually none of the researchers felt that the Senate staff report accurately described their work.  For example, the Senate staff report pokes fun at a study on reproduction of fruit flies without noting that fruit flies are a pest that can cause millions, even billions of dollars of damage to produce each year and such studies can lead to new ways to eliminate or control these pests. 

“I want to extend my thanks to the dozens of researchers who took the time to respond to our Committee staff survey.  The information they shared with our staff helped us to better understand the limitations of the Senate staff report and reminded us of the importance of being careful in how one evaluates research,” added Ms. Johnson.

The full responses by researchers who gave their permission to use their names and written comments are included as an appendix to the Committee staff report.