National Science Foundation funded climate change musical to tune of $700,000

Call it Climate Change: The Musical!

The National Science Foundation has spent nearly $700,000 on a climate change-themed theatrical production, leaving some in Congress questioning if the organization's grant funds could be put to better use.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, questioned White House science czar John Holdren in a hearing last Thursday about the way the NSF is using taxpayer money -- including on the grants for the play, a New York production called "The Great Immensity."

“I support basic research, which can lead to discoveries that change our world, expand our horizons and save lives,” Smith, chairman of the House Science Committee, told “But NSF has funded too many questionable research grants. Spending taxpayer dollars to fund a climate change musical called ‘The Great Immensity’ sounds more like a waste of taxpayer dollars -- money that could have funded higher priority research.”

“All government employees and their agency heads need to remember they are accountable to the American taxpayer who pays their salary and funds their projects. It is not the government's money; it is the people's money,” he added.

The play is being produced by New York-based activist theater group The Civilians with a grant award from 2010. According to a plot description on the theater company’s website, "The Great Immensity" focuses on a woman named Phyllis as she tries to track down a friend who disappeared while filming an assignment for a nature show on a tropical island. During her search, she also uncovers a devious plot surrounding an international climate summit in Auckland, New Zealand.

The description says the play is “a thrilling and timely production” that is “a highly theatrical look into one of the most vital questions of our time: how can we change ourselves and our society in time to solve the enormous environmental challenges that confront us?”

Asked for comment by, officials for the NSF confirmed they funded the play but defended the grant. “The Civilians, Inc., a Brooklyn, NY, theatre company, developed an innovative, out-of-the-box approach to exposing U.S. citizens to science,” the NSF said in a statement. “The project represents the unique cultural leverage of theater in its attempt to inspire the public’s imagination and curiosity about basic science and its relation to their everyday lives.”

“This venture, like other more traditional NSF-funded informal science education projects, aims to educate through a focus on understanding the scientific method, its applications, and its unique ability to extract knowledge about our complex natural world,” the statement continues. “It presents the pursuit of fundamental knowledge through basic research in a neutral manner that does not advocate any position regarding climate change or conservation research.”

But the play wasn't the only NSF-funded project Smith had questions about. Pointing out several examples, Smith questioned the following projects:

  • A $15,000 study on the fishing practices in and around Lake Victoria in Africa
  • A whopping $340,000 on the examination of the “ecological consequences” of early human fires in New Zealand
  • $200,000 towards a three-year study of the Bronze Age
  • Another $50,000 towards the survey of archived lawsuits from 17th century Peru
  • $20,000 for a study on the causes of stress in Bolivia

“All government employees and their agency heads need to remember they are accountable to the American taxpayer who pays their salary and funds their projects,” Smith said at the hearing last week.

The climate change play will premiere in New York next week and run until May 1 at a lower Manhattan performance space, as the theater group prepares for a possible national tour.