Congress

Sen. Rand Paul singles out National Science Foundation grants as wasteful. Are they?

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., smiles at the crowd during his victory celebration, Nov. 8, 2016, in Louisville, Ky.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., smiles at the crowd during his victory celebration, Nov. 8, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. AP

The National Science Foundation might cross Sen. Rand Paul’s name off its Christmas card list next year.

The Kentucky Republican, a frequent critic of government spending, released a new list this week of government studies he considers wasteful, and the foundation was naughty, in his estimation.

According to his report Wednesday, the foundation spent $30,000 to study the gambling habits of Ugandans, for example, and $70,000 to study the demographics of Wikipedia contributors.

What did Neil Armstrong say on the moon? The foundation paid $700,000 to study it, according to Paul’s report.

Want to know whether people are afraid of success or whether smiling in selfies makes you happier? The foundation spent a combined $650,000 on those studies, Paul’s report concluded.

Taxpayers got burned, according to his report, over a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant that paid for a study on “people’s like and tolerance of spicy food.”

Aya Collins, a spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation, said Paul’s report “mischaracterizes a substantive body of research with significant scientific value.”

“The foundation would have appreciated the chance to provide this report’s authors with the full context about the scope and significance of the research prior to publication,” Collins said.

The foundation’s Office of Inspector General encourages people to report waste, fraud and abuse. But besides complaining about the studies, which together represented less than a tenth of a percent of the foundation’s $7 billion annual budget, did Paul report them to the inspector general?

Paul’s staff didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to its semiannual reports to Congress, the foundation inspector general’s investigations have returned millions of dollars to the government. The September report shows the office recovered more than $2 million for taxpayers, and the March report shows it returned about $7 million to the government.

Its investigative work exposed researchers who had fabricated or plagiarized material and falsified data. Its investigations have resulted in the termination of grant awards and in individuals and companies getting banned from receiving government grants. The inspector general’s work also resulted in the convictions of two Florida scientists on 15 felony counts for using two companies to fraudulently obtain $10.6 million in awards from the foundation and six other federal agencies. The scientists received prison sentences.

A joint investigation with the NASA Office of Inspector General resulted in the conviction of a Georgia CEO on seven counts of wire fraud and two counts of false claims. The CEO had used fictitious employees, facilities and costs in a proposal to obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the two agencies.

Collins said the foundation’s merit review process for award proposals considered their scientific merit and broader impact to national security, the economy and science.

“Proposals are reviewed by outside science and engineering experts, and competition is intense,” she said.

Paul’s criticisms “minimize or ignore the benefits of this research,” Collins said.

That Neil Armstrong study? Collins said it supported research into treatments of autism, dyslexia, stuttering “and other conditions related to the brain mechanisms involved in understanding spoken language.”

“Contrary to Sen. Paul’s claim, NSF did not issue awards to specifically support research into Neil Armstrong’s moon landing quote,” she said.

Oh, and that study about spicy foods Paul got so hot about? Another federal agency paid for it: the National Institutes of Health, which Paul had correctly noted in a June news release.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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