NSF (NSFW)

Stimulus Package Stimulates the Wrong Package

Porn in the workplace affects science too (SciAm)
Porn in the workplace affects science too (SciAm)

I’ve just worked out why my research proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) failed to get funded last year.

I thought it was the returned critique: “inadequate consideration of outreach activities” that was the main reason for the failure (isn’t saying: “that’s the Sun,” whilst pointing to the sky, enough “outreach”?), or perhaps it was my criticism of research councils for not funding enough solar missions (fair point)… I’m not sure.

But it might have been a crap proposal that skimmed the desks of the NSF and filed under “LOL”, or “FAIL”.

After a year of getting used to the idea that I might not get back into solar research again, today I’ve seen what must have happened. My proposal landed on the NSF proposals desk during the 20% of the time the NSF staff member was taking an unauthorized break (i.e. surfing for porn).

Phew, perhaps I’m not bad at proposals after all

It’s funny, in the UK I don’t think this story would have stirred much anger. After the obligatory ‘trial by (second-rate) media’, a few giggles in the coffee room and then forgotten by dusk, a scandal involving porn and the office hardly seems like big news. OK, so the NSF isn’t your average, everyday office, it is the place where the direction of US science research is decided on. Perhaps this porn scandal should be treated differently? I’m not sure it should, but it is quite funny (but not for the guy who just got fired).

I’ve experienced a few research proposals fail over the years, one of them was at the hands of the NSF. But I wasn’t bitter, I knew the guys who make the big decisions have many proposals to work though, all vying for an ever-thinning slice of the pie. The NSF are a group of professionals, trusted by the US Government to fund the best research presented to them, funding “approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by the United States’ colleges and universities.” So, this could explain some of the anger being aired at the moment. But what exactly happened?

To cut a long story short (the long story can be found here):

“Chuck Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, on Tuesday fired off a letter to the NSF’s inspector general requesting all documents related to the “numerous reports” and seven investigations into “Abuse of NSF IT Resources” cited in the foundation’s 68-page semiannual report.” — Politico

For “Abuse of NSF IT Resources“, read: “surfing for porn, downloading porn and spending copious amounts of work hours having sexually explicit chats with women online.” One senior NSF official had spent 20% of his working hours engaging in these activities, costing the NSF an estimated $58,000 in wasted pay. He has been dismissed. Other offending staff members have been suspended or reprimanded, with all pornographic material removed.

This may all sound like a storm in a teacup, but there is a very serious side to the report’s findings. Chuck Grassley is currently investigating the agency, hinting that the upcoming $819 billion economic stimulus package may not benefit the NSF if it is proven they are wasting money. “The semiannual report raises real questions about how the National Science Foundation manages its resources, and Congress ought to demand a full accounting before it gives the agency another $3 billion in the stimulus bill,” Grassley said.

On the one hand, the “porn on a hard drive” scandal seems quite humorous. Unfortunately, it may serve as an example to the investigators that money is being needlessly wasted by the NSF, possibly causing the stimulus package to sidestep the science funding agency all together…

But wait a minute. They downloaded porn onto government computers? Wow.

Source: Scientific American, Politico, Cosmic Variance via @dpodolsky

8 thoughts on “NSF (NSFW)”

  1. I’m sure that guy would argue that the 20% of his time spent with porn made the remaining 80% that much more productive 🙂
    All work and no play… you know the saying.

  2. Let’s just suppose he spends 20% of his time Twittering — that could be misconstrued as online chats with women, right? It doesn’t cost a billion dollars a minute, but… ok, I’m done playing the devil’s advocate. What a creep.

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  3. They didn't intentionally “download” porn onto the computer. By nature of the internet anything you view is downloaded to your temp files. So even just simply watching a video on a streaming site would be “downloading” porn to your computer or simply looking at an image.

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