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The State of Higher Education Part 2: How did this get Funded?


“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”

“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”

– Milton Friedman

Last week I wrote the first part in a three part series, entitled “The State of Higher Education” (get it? I’m sure nobody, libertarian or otherwise, ever thought of that analogy before). Part 1 was about a paper titled “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” I critiqued the paper not just to rip it apart and expose its absurdities and how it actually works against the desired outcomes of the man-made climate change crowd, but to create “an entrance point into a larger issue worth examining.”

That issue is the lack of transparency and accountability regarding how the government funds scientific research, and how the results, or lack thereof, reflect the haphazard and non-practical-results oriented way in which funding and reporting on the results of research are administered.

The feminist glaciology paper has deservedly drawn a decent amount of criticism and ridicule online. Unfortunately, there is not enough of a magnifying glass pointed at the NSF and other government agencies that throw our tax money at grant applicants.

It must be said that just because the NSF, et al. routinely wastes our tax money on boondoggles, it doesn’t mean any fool can get his hands on grant money. They’re not as readily available as college grants and scholarships, which requirements often skew towards the arbitrary. Writing a grant proposal is a serious undertaking.

From the NSF’s webpage:

“The National Science Foundation funds research and education in most fields of science and engineering. It does this through grants, and cooperative agreements to more than 2,000 colleges, universities, K-12 school systems, businesses, informal science organizations and other research organizations throughout the United States. The Foundation accounts for about one-fourth of federal support to academic institutions for basic research… NSF receives approximately 40,000 proposals each year for research, education and training projects, of which approximately 11,000 are funded. In addition, the Foundation receives several thousand applications for graduate and postdoctoral fellowships.”

I wouldn’t ordinarily employ this phrase due to its economic connotations, but we should be thankful for this barrier to entry. Only 25% of NSF applicants receive grants. In my Thoreauvian minarchist world, the government wouldn’t fund any sort of research; I’d like it to be paid for by charities and businesses via R&D. But only funding a quarter of applications received is better than half, or all. The NSF does employ a merit-based framework (as flawed and corrupt as I’m sure it is) in their decision making process for which study is deserving of subsidy, as opposed to how most entitlement monies, in the forms of Medicare and Social Security are disbursed: arbitrarily, by age. In this way, the NSF is at least kinda, sorta approaching something of a responsible steward of public funds.

Some of the more infamous episodes of the NSF’s history include former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn’s (goddamnit, I miss him) publication of National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope, and the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) fiasco.

Released in May of 2011, Under the Microscope exposed waste and duplication of funds within the NSF’s budget. Some of the more egregious and absurd studies the NSF threw money at include $315,000 that found adults who played FarmVille on Facebook was conducive to them building and maintaining relationships; a $1,000,000 investigation into how baby names become trendy; $581,000 to research the racial prejudices of those who use online dating sites; and one that is quite topical, $80,000 to study why the same basketball teams always seem to gain March Madness slots. Aside from these totally worthwhile grants the NSF has kicked out, Coburn found 1.7 billion dollars sitting in un-cashed grant accounts, 3 million bucks in “excessive travel funds,” and my personal favorite, because they are words that should never have been joined together to create a sentence, “Inappropriate staff behavior including porn surfing and Jello wrestling and skinny-dipping at NSF-operated facilities in Antarctica.”

At the time of publication of Coburn’s paper, critics were quick to point out that the NSF’s budget was only seven billion dollars, which was only one half of one percent of the 2011 federal deficit. That may be true, but there is no more effective way for spending to explode out of control than to point at line items as “only” costing X amount. All of these “onlys” aggregate to a whole hell of a lot, and then we have to pull the lever of the money printing press for all of these little, meaningless expenses the feds routinely rack up.

In December of 2014, we learned NEON, a non-profit which receives all its funding from the NSF, had spent $25,000 on a Christmas party, had to pay $112,000 for lobbyists (wait, why do they need lobbyists if they already enjoy exclusive funding from the NSF?), and a specialty coffee provider that cost a grand a month.

For its part, the NSF attempted to clean up its act. On December 11, 2013, the Office of the Director of the NSF released Notice No. 135, “Important Notice to Presidents of Universities and Colleges and Heads of Other National Science Foundation Awardee Organizations, Subject: Transparency and Accountability at NSF.” An excerpt from this Notice:

“One area is our accountability for ensuring that our investment decisions support the national interest, defined by NSF’s mission ‘to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defense…’ To strengthen this alignment, our directorates and offices are examining process improvements for defining research priorities and objectives at all levels of the organization and at all stages of merit review… A second area is communications regarding our investment decisions. In the current fiscal environment, it is more important than ever to justify the expenditure of public funding. We believe we can enhance our public communications of what we are funding and why it is important. The immediate focus will be on improving our research abstracts, ensuring these primary sources of public information clearly articulate the broader context and funding justification. While our program officers are responsible for preparing abstracts, this often involves input from principal investigators…”

The NSF realized if they were to continue spending our tax dollars, they better be able to justify its expenditures. Well, rest assured, they’re doing a lousy job. A large part of the above excerpt, and other assurance from the NSF’s website I’ve read concern the abstracts posted that explain for what, and why, our taxes are being spent on research projects.

The paper about feminist glaciology was drawn from the research funded by NSF grant# 1253779, titled “CAREER: Glaciers and Glaciology: How Nature, Field Research, and Societal Forces Shape the Earth Sciences”:

“This project will examine the early development and subsequent evolution of the five main aspects of glaciology: ice dynamics; ice-ocean interactions; landforms and glacial geology; ice as archive of climatic records; and ice as natural resource (water). Specific case studies will be analyzed to illuminate the ways in which science, nature, and society intersect. The resultant book will address (1) the formation of glaciology and theories of ice dynamics; (2) the role of the International Ice Patrol (1913-present) in iceberg analysis and ocean-glacier interactions; (3) the establishment of theories about catastrophic glacial lake megafloods; (4) the Cold War context for ice coring and climatology; and (5) glacier retreat and hydrology.

The project has broad impacts because hundreds of millions of people worldwide live near glaciers, depend on glacier runoff for their water, reside in zones subjected to ongoing glacier hazards, inhabit coastal areas that could be flooded by melting ice sheets, and vacation in glaciated landscapes that hold particular cultural value such as national parks. The US Intelligence Community recognizes that the effects of glacier retreat potentially threaten US national security, and thus generating new knowledge about glaciers and glaciology contributes to policy and social well-being.

Research results will be disseminated in conference papers, guest lectures, and the posting of data and bibliographical materials on an online database and digital library. The project also proposes five educational activities that will produce broader impacts for students, the university, and the general public: (1) creation of a Science and Society Group, the foundational step to establishing a Center for the Study of Science and Society at the University of Oregon; (2) development of an “Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program” science and society curriculum to teach undergraduates alongside prison inmates in the unique penitentiary environment; (3) construction of a new Honors College course on the history of the earth sciences; (4) employment and training of undergraduate students in specific research projects; and (5) mentoring of a postdoctoral fellow.”

Now, contrast the abstract with the feminist glaciology paper, and the other papers written by the primary beneficiary of, and thanks to, the grant, Mark Carey:

Mark Carey and Philip Garone. “Forum Introduction: Climate Change and Environmental History,” Environmental History, v.19, 2014, p. 282.
Carey, Mark. “Science, Models, and Historians: Toward a Critical Climate History,” Environmental History, v.19, 2014, p. 354.
Carey, Mark, Lincoln C. James, and Hannah A. Fuller. “A New Social Contract for the IPCC,” Nature Climate Change, v.4, 2014, p. 1038.”

The abstract indicates the scientific importance of the proposed research, yet Carey is an Associate Professor of History. His previous works are not within the tradition of traditional hard sciences, but in the intersection of data collection with social sciences, and evaluations of the history of science.

Accounting for Carey’s research results and publications as a result of this grant, an argument could be made that the grant was awarded under false pretenses. I’m well aware researchers have to go where the research takes them, that the best laid plans of researchers often go awry. The problem is there is no real review process the NSF will perform that would lead to them cutting off his funding if the results or analysis of his funding turn out to be bunk.

Carey is the beneficiary of a five year long grant worth $412, 930. Regardless of what he finds, the money keeps flowing. All he has to do is submit an Annual Project Report “at least 90 days prior to the end of the current budget period to allow adequate time for the Program Officer to review and approve the report… The report becomes overdue the day after the 90 day period ends. Failure to submit timely reports will delay processing of additional funding and administrative actions, including, but not limited to, no cost extensions. In the case of continuing grants, failure to submit timely reports may delay processing of funding increments.”

Awardees must also submit a Final Project Report to his Program Officer. This report is not shared with the public.

As part of the America COMPETES Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, grant awardees are required to submit a Project Outcomes Report, on top of a Final Project Report, “which is a communication between the Principal Investigator and the NSF Program Officer. The Project Outcomes Report is meant for the general public.”

Here are some FAQ’s regarding Project Outcomes Reports:

“6. What should be included in the Project Outcomes Report?

The Project Outcomes Report should serve as a brief summary (200-800 words), prepared specifically for the public, of the nature and outcomes of the project. The report should describe the project outcomes or findings that address the intellectual merit and broader impacts of the work as defined in the NSF merit review criteria.

7. Will NSF approve the Project Outcomes Report?

No. NSF will not be approving the Project Outcomes Report. It will be posted the next business day on Research.gov’s Research Spending and Results exactly as it is submitted by the Principal Investigator.

9. Will the Principal Investigator be penalized for not submitting this report?

Yes. Submission of the Project Outcomes Report follows the same business rules as annual and final reports. Failure to provide these reports on a timely basis may delay review and processing of pending proposals for all identified PIs and co-PIs on a given award.”

The worst that can happen if an awardee doesn’t post a max-length 800 word POR is the review and processing of his next grant application may be delayed. There’s nothing about future grants not being awarded based on lousy past research results and/or unworthy topics.

From a page on the NSF’s website regarding funding for multi-year grants:

“a. Funding increments for projects being supported under continuing grants receive high priority within NSF and normally are not considered in competition with proposals for new grants or for renewed support of standard grants.

b. Unless otherwise provided for in the original grant notice, each increment of a continuing grant will be funded at the level indicated in the original award notice without a formal request, subject to NSF’s judgment of satisfactory progress, availability of funds, and receipt and approval of the required annual report. NSF makes every attempt to honor continuing grant commitments. In order to adjust to changes in the general level of funds for a particular field of science or engineering or to major new opportunities in that field, however, NSF may reduce continuing grant increments below the levels indicated in original grant notices. This requires full written justification by program staff and management review and approval. In the absence of major unanticipated fiscal year constraints, reductions are rare.” (my emphasis)

In other words, unless there is some egregious example of waste, or non-compliance with pretty simple requirements for continuing funding, the water for each grant is drawn until the well is dry. There is no stringent review process. If your grant application has been approved, and you file your annual project report, you keep getting your money, regardless of any data you compile or analysis you develop.

The money faucet does not turn off, and what happens with NSF grants is reflective of other problems the government has when it comes to legacy or fraudulent funding of entitlement programs, or the failure to remove the names of dead citizens from rolls of registered voters.

The fact is these multiple year grants are incapable of weeding out applicants who may revise their intended studies after they receive funding.

Part 3: Free College + Time = ∅

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Dillon Eliassen is the Managing Editor of Being Libertarian. Dillon works in the sales department of a privately owned small company. He holds a BA in Journalism & Creative Writing from Lyndon State College, and needs only to complete his thesis for his Master’s of English from Montclair State University (something which his accomplished and beautiful wife, Alice, is continually pestering him about). He is the author of The Apathetic, available at Amazon.com. He is a self-described Thoreauvian Minarchist.

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