By Ethan Barton – National Science Foundation officials award $7 billion in grants annually based on funding proposals the agency’s watchdog estimates have hundreds of examples of plagiarism and “falsified or fabricated data.”
The federal science research agency awards 11,000 grants to 2,000 research institutions annually, but Allison Lerner, the agency’s inspector general, only oversees about 1 percent of those recipients.
Researcher misconduct has drastically increased over the past decade, meaning millions of tax dollars go to fraudsters, according to Lerner.
The watchdog estimated that around 1,200 proposals for funding could contain plagiarism and another 800 proposals or results include “falsified or fabricated data,” according the IG’s semiannual report.
Additionally, NSF has faced widespread criticism from the public and Congress for funding projects like two experiments that ran shrimp on a treadmill at a cost to taxpayers of $1.3 million. The agency refused to divulge information about the grants’ budgets, The Daily Caller News Foundation previously reported.
Meanwhile, NSF’s $7 billion in awards is enough to fund more than 122,000 students for a year at Harvard University at the fabled school’s current tuition rate of $57,200 per year.
NSF accounts “for about one-fourth of federal support to academic institutions for basic research,” agency spokeswoman Jessica Arriens told TheDCNF.
“All NSF awardees are required to submit interim and final progress reports, various program staff make site visits (and reverse site visits, when the PIs come to NSF and meet with staff here) to see funded projects, and NSF grants and agreements officers monitor awardee compliance with award terms and conditions and award administration,” Arriens said.
But NSF’s oversight excludes a key tool.
“With limited exceptions, NSF does not require recipients to provide supporting documentation to receive payments,” NSF Inspector General Chief of Staff Susan Carnohan told TheDCNF. Those documents include records like receipts and invoices.
“This practice makes it impossible to tell whether or not NSF awardees are properly spending their research funds,” Carnohan said. “As a result, it is extremely important for NSF to have a system in place to ensure that improper payments are detected and misuse of funds is identified.”
The IG recovered $5 million from fraudulent payments and questioned how another $1.9 million was spent in 2015’s second half, according to its semiannual report.
Yet, the IG can only audit about one out of every 100 grant recipients.
“Given our resources, we can usually conduct no more than 20 audits of NSF recipients in a year,” Carnohan told TheDCNF. “We focus our resources on areas of highest risk, but are not able to audit every recipient each year so there are periods of time between audits of institutions. As a result, there will often be periods when institutions are not audited by OIG.”
Yet, NSF may not cut a recipient’s funding, even after the IG catches misused money. The watchdog reported that 18 findings for nine awardees were “repeated for three or more consecutive years, calling into question the awardees’ ability adequately to manage their NSF awards.”
But oversight of NSF grants isn’t just about money. Researcher misconduct has drastically increased.
“In 2004, two research misconduct findings were made, while in 2014 there were 20 research misconduct findings,” according to the agency’s semiannual report. That may not seem like many, but just one investigation led to a total of 28 years in prison for two scientists who fraudulently obtained $10.6 million in awards from NSF and six other agencies.
“OIG does suspect that a significant amount of research misconduct goes undetected,” Carnohan said. “However, we have no reliable statistics to support our suspicions. There have been surveys of researchers asking about questionable research practices and research misconduct and a significant number of respondents replied that either they or someone they knew engaged in such practices.”
Misconduct also may have been affected by increased reporting, Carnohan said.
“Therefore, we believe that more needs to be done to address this problem, and NSF should exert its influence with institutions regarding this important issue,” the semiannual report said.
But NSF’s proposal review process is internationally “considered the gold standard” and provides “a powerful return on investment,” according to an agency video.
Still, verifying that process is beyond the IG’s purview.
“The OIG has an oversight role and does not determine policy or engage in management activities involving the Foundation or program operations,” Carnohan said. “Thus, OIG is not responsible for managing any NSF programs, nor do we attempt to assess the scientific merit of research funded by the Foundation.”
These problems aren’t new. Three years ago, Lerner told a congressional committee that “extrapolating across the 45,000 proposals NSF receives annually suggests 1,300 proposals could contain plagiarism and 450 to 900 could contain problematic data.”
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