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Jell-O heads versus Journalists: Who Slipped up on a Report About Scientists Going Wild in Antarctica?
Rebecca Goldin, PhD, June 1, 2011
Recent investigations and news reports into mismanagement and waste at the National Science Foundation appear to have been written by Inspector Clouseau.

Shrimp ClouseauLast week, readers of the Washington Times and – thanks to the Drudge Report – readers around the world learned that American tax dollars were purportedly being spent on wacky and weird science experiments which included putting shrimp on treadmills, and engaging in Jell-O wrestling in Antarctica (the latter activity involved only humans). Only it turns out, the Washington Times got it wrong, and most media outlets seemed to have missed an opportunity for digging past the Jell-O.

How did these extraordinary accusations come about? Well, according to the Times story, a new “Report says federal research agency mismanaged $3 billion.” While Main Street USA was still crawling out of a recession, it was full speed ahead on the highway to crazy times at the National Science Foundation (NSF), according to an investigation by Sen. Tom Coburn, (R-OK), entitled “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope.”

But instead of putting the report under the microscope to see if it was accurate, most media outlets simply reported what Sen. Coburn said was there (or presumably, what his staff told him was there) – and the Washington Times even mangled that.

The Times story claimed that the NSF had funded Jell-O wrestling but later in the article noted that, “In one instance, [Sen. Coburn] said NSF employees, in their spare time, engaged in a jello-wrestling contest at the agency’s McMurdo research station in Antarctica.” (emphasis added).

Was NSF money going on Jell-O or did the NSF employees spend their own money? Amazingly, the report actually tells us that the messy game had nothing to do with scientific research or funding. The agency had not funded, nor condoned, such behavior. In fact, the person responsible for organizing the event was fired. All of which seems to suggest that the NSF takes propriety very seriously indeed.

But that doesn’t exactly make for a rousing narrative of nerds gone wild. Remarkably, the New York Times also failed to address any disagreement over the content of the Coburn report, but at least it did not report activities by the employees of NSF as if they had been funded by the NSF.

By contrast, Science Insider noted major inaccuracies in the report itself:

The biggest "savings" that Coburn identifies is actually a misreading of federal statutes, according to NSF officials. The report accuses NSF of failing to recover $1.7 billion in "expired grants," that is, money grantees didn't spend in the course of doing their research. But that's not true, says NSF. The number reflects all the money that has been obligated for multiyear grants, and the amount (as of last fall) drops as researchers tap their accounts over the duration of their project. "It's being used for exactly the purpose for which it was intended," explains one budget official who requested anonymity.

The actual amount of money not spent by grantees is about $30 million (less than .05% of the agency’s budget), and this amount is returned to the Treasury, according to the NSF.

Journalists who come out of this farrago looking like brainiacs include The Daily’s Joshua Hersh and MSNBC’s Alan Boyle.

In The Daily, Hersh reported that the targets of Coburn’s ire had not been contacted to explain their research. In the case of Adrian Bejan, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke, it turned out that he hadn’t received $80,000 to look at why the same teams seem to dominate March Madness; rather, that was an unrelated paper from one of his students. But because the student was in the class that was doing the real research (which was on evolution), the student had listed the funding for the overall class on his other paper.

The robot folding laundry was, as a spokesman for the NSF told Hersh, to find out if
“a robot can go into a battlefield and repair a soldier’s skin — fold back skin when a human can’t get into the field of battle and repair a wounded soldier.” Laundry was simply a preliminary step.

And the shrimp-athon? MSNBC’s Boyle reported that it was “a way to gauge the health of marine organisms in a laboratory setting.”

In sum, the only real waste of money here appears to be the shoddily researched congressional report. Perhaps we need the NSF to fund a study to gauge the research skills of congressional staffers in a setting where science is all too easily politicized?

 


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