Tag Archives: NSF

National Science Foundation considers shuttering Arecibo

Faced with tight budgets, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering several options for the future operation of the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest single radio telescope dish, including its complete removal.

[T]he NSF could mothball the site, shutting it down in such a way that it could restart (sometime in the future). Or it could dismantle the telescope altogether and restore the area to its natural state, as required by law if the agency fully divests itself of the observatory and closes it. Previous studies have said such a process could cost around $100 million—more than a decade’s worth of its current funding for telescope operations. Jim Ulvestad, director of the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences, says the agency is still investigating, not concluding. “No alternative has been selected at this juncture,” he says. And much consideration will go into the final financial decision, whatever it may be. Some outside the agency see writing on the wall. “NSF is dead serious about offloading Arecibo funding to someone else—anyone else,” says Ellen Howell, a former staff scientist at Arecibo and now a faculty member at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) in Tucson, Arizona.

The article spends a lot of time talking about how wonderful Arecibo is, but never tells us how many astronomers actually demand to use it. Is it oversubscribed, like Hubble, where five times the number of astronomers request time than can be handled, or does it often sit unused because not enough astronomers require its use? NSF and the government do not have unlimited funds, and need to focus their spending where the demand is. If Arecibo is not in demand, then they are wise to consider closing it, or handing it off to someone who wants it.

NSF to help fund the development of implantable antennas

What could possibly go wrong? The National Science Foundation (NSF) is providing funding for the development of an implantable antenna for health care, including the possibility for “long-term patient monitoring.”

The project is being financed in collaboration with the National Research Foundation of Korea to create a high frequency antenna that can be permanently implanted under a person’s skin. “Antennas operating near or inside the human body are important for a number of applications, including healthcare,” a grant for the project said. “Implantable medical devices such as cardiac pacemakers and retinal implants are a growing feature of modern healthcare, and implantable antennas for these devices are necessary to monitor battery level and device health, to upload and download data used in patient monitoring, and more.”

The grant said that an implantable device could be used for “long-term patient monitoring” and “biometric tracking,” or using technology to verify a person’s identity.

Without any doubt there are many very useful applications for such an implantable device. Monitoring battery life on pacemakers is an obvious one. There will be a problem, however, if anyone but the patient can do the monitoring. I can see too many possible misuses occurring should it be in anyone else’s hands. At a minimum, there are big privacy concerns.

Ocean science deals with limited budgets

A National Research Council report has outlined a range of budget cuts in the field of ocean science, including significant cuts to infrastructure expenses, in order to focus the available funds more wisely.

Faced with rising costs of going to sea, the ocean-sciences division of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) should immediately slash what it spends on marine hardware, says a new report. It suggests making the biggest cut to the flagship US$386-million Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), which after years of construction is just months away from being finished.

The report, released on 23 January by the US National Research Council, is likely to guide US oceanography for years to come. It is the first formal attempt to address what many researchers have grumbled about for years — that basic ocean science at the NSF is losing out to the rising costs of infrastructure.

This report and the response of the ocean science community illustrates a pattern going on throughout the sciences. For years, their budgets had been rising so fast that they really didn’t know what to do with the money. (I know they would disagree with me.) This resulted in some laziness in how they spent it, including a great deal of feather-bedding and pork.

Now that budgets have frozen and are no longer growing, and in many cases shrinking back to more affordable levels, they need to figure out what is essential and what is not. This report is part of that effort.

I am seeing this same process happening in other fields as well. Santa, in the form of unlimited federal spending, has gone home, and is unexpected to return for quite some time.

NSF accused of misuse of funds in giant ecological project

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and a contractor have been accused by both an audit and by Congress of a significant misuse of funds in a major ecological monitoring project costing almost a half a billion dollars.

With a construction budget of $433.7 million, NEON is planned to consist of 106 sites across the United States. Arrays of sensors at each site will monitor climate change and human impacts for 30 years, building an unprecedented continental-scale data set. Although some initially doubted its merits, the allure of big-data ecology eventually won over most scientists.

But a 2011 audit of the project’s proposed construction budget stalled three times when, according to the independent Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), NEON’s accounting proved so poor that the review could not be completed. Eventually, DCAA issued an adverse ruling, concluding that nearly 36% of NEON’s budget proposal was questionable or undocumented.

When the NSF green-lit the project, the agency’s inspector-general ordered the audit released on 24 November, which found unallowable expenses including a $25,000 winter holiday party, $11,000 to provide coffee for employees, $3,000 for board-of-directors dinners that included alcohol, $3,000 for t-shirts and other clothes, $83,000 for “business development” and $112,000 for lobbying.

Republican members of Congress have since been attacking NSF for this lax management. And though the amount of funds apparently misused does not seem very large compared to the size of the entire contract, I am willing to bet that this audit only uncovered a tiny portion of the misuse. Based on the recent behavior of federal agencies, I would expect this to only be an indicator of much worst abuse that is still buried behind stone-walling.

A side note: Remember how only a few weeks ago the NSF head was claiming that a shortage of funds was the reason they were unable to cure ebola. What really happened was that they were too busy spending money having parties to do their job.

The science cuts from sequestration

The journal Science today published this detailed look at the cuts that would occur in all the federal government’s various science programs should the automatic budget cuts outlined in the sequestration legislation occur on January 2, 2013.

Not surprising, the article includes a great deal of moaning and groaning about the terrible harm the cuts would have on science research should they occur. From the Obama administration:
» Read more

Facing tight budgets, a National Science Foundation panel has recommended the shuttering of five major ground-based telescopes.

Facing tight budgets, a National Science Foundation panel has recommended the shuttering of five major ground-based telescopes.

Stay tuned for loud screams of outrage. However, some of these facilities have not been very useful for years. Consider the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Radio Telescope. It was only rebuilt after it collapsed in 1988 because of the political clout of Senator Robert Byrd. By the time that reconstruction was finished, a process that took more than 20 years, the telescope was completely obsolete. Though it has done some good science, it is far outmatched by other radio telescope arrays.

Many of the facilities are funded merely due to bureaucratic and political inertia. For the astronomical community to be willing to recognize this is a good thing, for which they should be lauded.

Democrats in Congress proposed on Friday creating a federal program to develop and implement “forensic science standards.”

Democrats in Congress proposed on Friday creating a federal program to develop and implement “forensic science standards.”

The bill calls for the creation of a forensic science committee chaired by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), which would assess how to best handle material from a crime scene, for example, and issue guidelines. Meanwhile, basic research into new forensic science tools and techniques might fall under the guise of a proposed National Forensic Science Coordinating Office, housed at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Over the next five years, the bill would provide $200 million in grants for forensic science research, and $100 million for the development of forensic science standards.

Two new federal agencies, costing millions. Gee, I wonder where these Democrats think the money will come from? And that ignores the more fundamental question of what business is it of the federal government to do this? Law enforcement is a state issue.

If this bill passes (which I suspect is quite unlikely), all it will probably accomplish is to create a new bureaucracy in Washington (jobs for the buddies of these politicians!).

For a second year in a row the U.S. has negotiated a deal with a Russian company to provide icebreaker service to Antarctica during the winter.

For a second year in a row the U.S. has negotiated a deal with a Russian company to provide icebreaker service to Antarctica during the winter.

The company had played hardball in negotiations, so I expect the National Science Foundation is paying a lot more this year than last for the service.

Spending money on silliness at the NSF and NIH

Your tax dollars at work: Spending money on silliness at the NSF and NIH.

Coburn’s report identified a number of projects that will make most Americans—scientists and nonscientists alike—shake their heads. They include studies of: how to ride a bike; when dogs became man’s best friend; whether political views are genetically predetermined; whether parents choose trendy baby names; and when the best time is to buy a ticket to a sold-out sporting event. And it noted that “only politicians appear to benefit from other NSF studies, such as research on what motivates individuals to make political donations, how politicians can benefit from Internet town halls…and how politicians use the Internet.”

Read the whole thing, as it gives a scientist’s perspective of this waste, which is sometimes not as obvious as the examples above.

The Giant Magellan Telescope project has decided it will not participate in a funding competition offered by the National Science Foundation.

The 24.5 meter Giant Magellan Telescope project (GMT) has decided it is not interested in competing for funds offered by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

With just US$1.25 million available to the winner, the NSF competition was less about money and more about prestige. The NSF has been adamant that it has no significant money to support either project until the early part of next decade. But the Thirty Meter Telescope, which will still respond to the NSF’s solicitation, believed that a competition would at least demonstrate the NSF’s intention to eventually support one project — and that the winner would have an easier time attracting international partners.

But the GMT says it can go it alone, at least for now. On 23 March, the group began blasting at its mountaintop site in Chile. And they say they are nearly halfway towards raising the $700 million they need to complete construction.

If the GMT has already raised almost $350 million without NSF support, it makes perfect sense for them to thumb their noses at this piddling funding from the NSF, especially since the bureaucratic cost of getting that money will probably be far more than $1.25 million.

The National Science Foundation has declined until 2020 to commit to funding a giant American-built ground-based telescope

Bad news for American astronomy: The National Science Foundation has declined until 2020 to commit to any funding for either one of the two giant American-built ground-based telescopes.

For nearly a decade now, two university consortia in the United States have been in a race to build two ground-based telescopes that would be several times bigger than today’s biggest optical telescope. One group—led by the University of California—plans to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii. The other team—led by Carnegie Observatories, the University of Arizona, and other institutions—is developing a 28-meter behemoth named the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which would be built in Chile. Over the past few years, both teams have raised tens of millions of dollars toward the billion-dollar-plus projects in the hope that the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) would come up with the balance.

But now, it turns out, neither project has a chance of receiving any significant funding from NSF for at least another decade. In a solicitation posted by NSF last week, the agency indicated that it does not expect to fund the building of any giant segmented mirror telescopes—that is, TMT or GMT—until the beginning of the 2020s. According to the solicitation, all that NSF can provide right now is $1.25 million over 5 years for the development of a public-private partnership plan that could eventually lead to the building of a large telescope, should NSF be in a position to fund such a telescope sometime in the next decade.

I suspect the NSF’s unwillingness to fund this project at this time is directly related to the budget crisis in Washington. Though the NSF got slightly more money in 2012 than in 2011, that money is all accounted for by other projects. There is no margin for anything new that will be as expensive (in the billions) as these giant telescopes will be.

More bad budget reporting

Once again a journalist as well as a science journal are spinning budget numbers to hide the fact that the present Congress is not imposing draconian cuts to science. If anything, they are not cutting enough, considering the dire state of the federal deficit.

First there is the headline, from Science: Senate Panel Cuts NSF Budget by $162 Million. Then there is the article’s text, by Jeffrey Mervis, which not only reaffirms the cuts described in the headline but adds that “the equivalent House of Representatives panel approved a bill that would hold NSF’s budget steady next year at $6.86 billion.” Mervis then underlines how terrible he thinks these budget numbers are by quoting Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland): “We’ve gone beyond frugality and are into austerity.”

This reporting is shameful. Not only is Mikulski full of crap, Mervis’s description of the budget numbers is misleading if not downright wrong. Here are the final budget numbers for the NSF since 2007, in billions of dollars (sources: Science, the American Geological Institute, and The Scientist):
» Read more

Social Sciences Face Uphill Battle Proving Their Worth to Congress

Some squealing from the journal Science: NSF faces uphill budget battle in Congress.

When he asked the witnesses for ideas on shrinking the government’s $1.6 trillion deficit, Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) [chairman of the research panel of the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee] made it clear he was talking about possible cuts to NSF’s entire $7 billion budget, not simply its SBE directorate.

Note that in 2008 the NSF budget was a $6.1 billion. Cutting it back to that number would hardly destroy social science research in this country.