The Senate’s top watchdog on government waste, in a new report Thursday, said taxpayer money has gone to fund such programs as Jell-O wrestling at the South Pole, testing shrimp’s exercise ability on a treadmill and 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 duplication by the science agency of operations performed by other agencies.
At a time when the federal government is struggling with record deficits and bumping up against its borrowing limit, Mr. Coburn said the agency is a prime example of the kinds of spending taxpayers should no longer 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 said in a letter to taxpayers he wrote introducing the 73-page report, documented by more than 350 footnotes.
In one instance NSF employees, in their spare time, engaged in a Jell-O wrestling contest at the agency’s McMurdo research station at the South Pole. In another case, the agency paid $559,681 to test sick shrimp’s 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 agency officials 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,” said Dana Topousis, the spokeswoman. “We believe that no other funding agency in the world comes close to NSF for giving taxpayers the best return on their investment.”
The agency 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 2005 audit found almost half of the reports the agency is required to file were submitted either late or not at all.