Friday, August 19, 2011

Coburn Report on NSF

(Copied from a July post on my "home" blog)

Last week I responded to my Congressional delegation on Senator Tom Coburn’s report entitled ““The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope” ( I was aware that some scientists whose projects were represented in the report had already responded through blogs and other public forums. Having worked at NSF, however, there was an aspect of the report to which I could respond specifically, and I decided to stick pretty closely to observations that this unique perspective offered. My letter to Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is below; the same letter was also sent to Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) and to Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) representing Tennessee’s 5th District.


July 21, 2011
Senator Lamar Alexander
3322 West End Avenue, #120
Nashville, TN 37203

Dear Senator Alexander:

I recently read the entirety of Senator Coburn’s report “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope.” You are one of my senators and I am thus writing to you to express significant concerns with the report, focusing on those for which I have something of a unique perspective. From July 2007 through August 2010 I was on leave from Vanderbilt University, serving as a Program Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the Directorate of Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE). It was a pleasure and honor to serve at NSF as a member of a hardworking, dedicated team. I regard my time at NSF as service to my country of which I am very proud.

Foremost, I worry that there seems to be an attitude of disrespect for NSF staff permeating the report. For example, the report includes a section “NSF Flying High with First-Class Junkets” (p. 14), with no indication in the section that anyone did this. Indeed, I never flew first class at NSF, or on a junket, nor do I know of colleagues who did. In a second example, when commenting on NSF’s desire to become environmentally friendlier, the report says “Some might find it interesting to note, then, that the NSF currently owns 375 vehicles, including 52 sports utility vehicles” (p. 15). This statement seems flippant and is vague, but is suggestive that NSF staff are hypocritical, not environmentally conscious and/or that the vehicles are not used for science. A third example is the report’s claim that porn surfing was “pervasive” (p. 15), with at least six citations of the same article in The Washington Times. This statement is very wrong. I can believe that such cases, though anomalous, have consumed a large part of the Inspector General’s time in the recent past, since a tiny proportion of a group is often responsible for a large proportion of the angst. We have seen a very recent example in Congress of misbehavior that consumed large amounts of time and energy, but I would not claim that such behavior was rampant in Congress.

My experience at NSF contrasts with the report’s representation of NSF staff activities. My colleagues and I performed many diverse tasks, including the vetting of research proposals with input from other scientific experts, preparing research solicitations, preparing and giving outreach talks to the public, and representing NSF and our country overseas. It is because of administrative and scientific staff dedication that the agency functions as well as it does in spite of very heavy workloads. I worked 60+ hour weeks and this really was pervasive across the Foundation. It appears that even when the President and Congress agree on budget increases for NSF, it is for scientific initiatives that come with yet more overhead and not for the addition of staff to deal with that overhead. I very much encourage you to consider additional funding for staff as well as scientific initiatives.

I believe that the report’s tone will cause many to reject the report entirely, to include points that I think have validity. For example, I generally agree with the report’s statements that a discussion about funding priorities is important. In fact, the very hard discussions I had with my fellow program directors at NSF were on what projects to fund given differing opinions on priorities and our limited budget. Our budget only allowed us to fund about one-third of the projects that had been judged by scientific experts to be most worthy of funding, which in turn was about one-third of all projects submitted; these proportions varied across the agency. The heartbreaking part of my job at NSF was that the majority of projects worthy of funding could not be funded, and my colleagues and I knew the costs for science research in our country and the costs to faculty members and students behind that research. NSF personnel take the job of assessing the scientific qualifications of projects and funding priorities very seriously.

I also agree in general with the report on the importance of metrics and tools to evaluate the payoffs of scientific investments; I believe that NSF staff would welcome such tools with open arms. Data analysis and visualization tools are critically needed to track scientific investments and to evaluate the US funding portfolio within and across agencies. The report highlighted the importance of the STAR Metric initiative, which is aligned with the Science of Science and Innovation Policy (SciSIP) program housed in the Social, Behavioral and Economics (SBE) Directorate of NSF. Thus, I was surprised that the report also recommended eliminating the SBE Directorate. I can’t emphasize enough how wrong I think this would be. I am a computer scientist and daily I witness how computing technology is transforming the ways that humans interact, perceive, decide and learn. The last thing we need is to cut research on understanding human behavior in a time of transformative technology. We should understand, for example, what video games and social networks are doing to our children and all citizens, so that we can design technology to enhance learning and decision-making, not diminish it.

Finally, I fear the report’s tone because it comes across as demeaning public servants whom I know to be dedicated, talented and industrious. I am not sure where degrading stereotypes of ‘government bureaucrats’ originated, but I for one, a lifelong academic, gained an incredible respect for the hard work and brains of federal staff, not just at NSF, but in agencies and departments across government.

Government colleagues can and should offer constructive criticism to one another, but I believe Senator Coburn’s report doesn’t paint an accurate picture of those at NSF who loyally and diligently serve their country. In particular, I wanted to convey my experience to you that NSF is an institution that Americans can be proud of, respected and emulated the world over, with staff who do their best in making difficult decisions on matters of national and scientific importance, despite a limited budget and a heavy workload.

Thank you for your attention and for your service to our country.

Douglas H. Fisher

**** End letter ****

Generally, what significant empathy I have for the challenges currently faced by Congress and the President is due to my NSF service. It also makes me sick that so many members of our government appear to be so disrespectful of each other.

Despite my fears about the Coburn report, I think that some good things could come of it and the responses that are following. Notably, I hope that scientists, after reading the report, see the vital importance of communicating science to the public, to include Congress and scientists in disciplines other than their own. I’d like to see every research team be associated with those skilled in communicating scientific findings and their national and international relevance to the public. Universities have individuals skilled in communicating science to the public, but they are probably too few and far between – communication can be integral to research projects, and researchers can ask for the funds necessary to support that activity. Rather than blog posts erupting after reports such as this to explain and justify scientific research, maybe we’ll see more proactive outreach.

Generally, my experience suggests that scientists and engineers can more embrace their role as citizens, and all citizens should recognize that science and engineering are integral to citizenship. I could be wrong, because I might be working from a biased sample, but my sense is that not a lot of scientists write their elected officials, advocating more funding for science research and the like. I hope that scientific professional organizations not only respond themselves, which is happening, but that they encourage civic engagement by their individual members. Its probable that the climate scientists have internalized this message over the last few decades, and the social scientists may be getting it as well.

In any case, while my 3+ years at NSF reenergized the teacher in me and the researcher in me, it may have reenergized the citizen in me most of all. I hope so.

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