Published March 16, 2013
The federal government is ready to pay people $45,900 to attend an annual snowmobile competition in Michigan for the next two years.
They're also ready to shell out $516,000 for scientists to develop an ecoATM that will give out cash in exchange for old cell phones and other electronics. And why not drop another $349,862 for a study that looks at the effects of meditation and self-reflection for math, science and engineering majors?
These are just a few of the 164 grants the National Science Foundation approved two weeks ago. Yet around the same time, the administration was warning that the sequester would cut into critical research on chronic diseases.
While some of the less critical grant ideas were scrapped as the NSF looked for ways to scale back and prioritize, the number of allegedly frivolous grants still in play is not sitting well with Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
The GOP senator has been on a campaign to call out what he sees as pockets of wasteful government spending. Since the sequestration took effect March 1, he's sent 11 letters to various department heads highlighting places where they can fiscally trim down.
In a letter to NSF director Subra Suresh, Coburn suggested cutting the grants above along with nine others, including a $515,468 grant used, in part, to study how a shrimp running on a treadmill responds to alterations in oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
"These may be interesting questions to ponder or explore, but just because each is currently being supported by NSF should not mean guaranteed future funding if new applications with greater merit or potential are submitted," Coburn wrote in his March 12 letter. "I appreciate your agency's commitment to continuing grants, but ensuring the most promising new research can be supported next year may require ending or reducing spending on lower priority grants now being funded. Robo-squirrel may have survived its encounters with the rattlesnake but it may have met its match in sequestration if we hope to provide support for more promising scientific projects."
"Robo-squirrel" has long been criticized by Coburn as a big government boondoggle. Researchers at San Diego State University used funds from a $325,000 grant provided by the government-bankrolled NSF to invent a robotic squirrel used for researchers. Coburn has used robo-squirrel as an example multiple times as a government program that needs to be cut.
NSF spokeswoman Dana Topousis told FoxNews.com Friday that they receive 40,000 to 50,000 proposals a year. Of those, 10,000 to 11,000 get funded. Topousis says decisions are based on two criteria – “intellectual merit” and the “broader impacts”, which addresses the benefits of the proposed study to society.
She also says Coburn shouldn’t get caught up with the quirky names of the projects but try to see beyond it. One of the most successful projects the NSF has had a hand in was one in 1996 called “BackRub,” a search engine research project by Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
“BackRub sounds ridiculous but if we didn’t take a chance on it things would be a lot different today,” she said.
In 1997, BackRub changed its name to Google.
Still, others argue that a few success stories don't make it ok for the NSF to spend taxpayer money. Shortly before the sequester took effect, the administration warned that up to 12,000 scientists and students could be impacted by the cuts due to reduced NSF research grants. The administration also warned about cutbacks at the National Institutes of Health, which "would delay progress on the prevention of debilitating chronic conditions ... and delay development of more effective treatments for common and rare diseases affecting millions of Americans."
But Coburn, among those who say the administration is taking unnecessary measures to comply with the sequester, says there are plenty of other ways to save.
Another program Coburn calls out is "Snooki" -- a robot bird that impersonates a female sage grouse to examine the importance of courtship tactics of males.
"Every dollar spent on projects such as these could have instead supported research to design a next-generation robotic limb to treat injured war heroes or a life-saving hurricane detection system," Coburn writes in his letter.
Coburn said the number of new research grants could be reduced by as many as 1,000.
Through audits and investigations, the NSF Inspector General identified more than $309 million in questionable and poorly spent funds in just the second half of fiscal year 2012.