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Again With the Criticisms of Scientific Research

US Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a report last week that discusses what it calls mismanagement at the National Science Foundation. "This includes tens of millions of dollars spent on questionable studies, excessive amounts of expired funds that have not been returned to the Treasury, inadequate contracting practices that unnecessarily increase costs, and a lack of metrics to demonstrate results," Coburn writes in an introductory letter to the report. He adds that the agency should fund "transformative research," and points out examples of what he says are "questionable NSF projects," including the shrimp-on-a treadmill study of fatigue and the influence of genes on a person's political views.

The report has also drawn its own criticism. NSF tells ScienceInsider that the unreturned expired funds that Coburn points out are not expired grants, but are budgeted for ongoing multi-year grants. And at Science Progress, Michael Burnam-Fink from Arizona State University says, regarding transformational research, "the problem is that 'transformative research' can only be identified in retrospect. We often don't know where the next breakthrough will come from, or which scientific theories will prove critical in the long run."

As ScienceInsider's Jeffrey Mervis notes, "The document follows a well-trod path of asserting that a federal research agency is funding trivial and duplicative research in addition to exercising inadequate oversight of existing programs." Indeed, in 2008, Sarah Palin criticized research on fruit flies as having "little or nothing to do with the public good." And that reminds Orac of the Golden Fleece Awards that Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) gave out in the 1970s and 1980s to highlight what Proxmire considered dubious scientific projects.