Again about the role of money in science

A message from our college’s research support team about an NSF report on its programs supporting scientific buisnesses and the commercialization of science caused me to read other NSF reports including the NSF Office of Inspector General latest report ( This report lists many incidents of misspending money by Principal Investigators (presumably, professors), such as:

    “We previously reported that the former financial director of a non-profit organization was indicted for theft, money laundering, and filing a false tax return. The non-profit organization received more than $3 million in Federal grant funds including more than $1.6 million in NSF awards to address water quality, health, environmental, and safety issues. According to court documents, the former director misapplied funds from the organization, which included Federal funds, for his personal benefit. This included the purchase of an airplane, maintenance on an airplane, flight school for himself, the purchase of real estate, more than a dozen firearms, and online pornography fees. He also directed another individual to create shell companies and diverted funds to these companies to hide the airplane and real estate purchases.” (p. 11)

Since many of us including myself are in the area of fresh water research, I am curious, which NSF program funded this proposal (and which proposals were NOT funded instead)? The OIG would not tell us.

I am also surprized by the size of awards mentioned in the OIG report, e.g. “ordered them to pay restitution equal to the total amount awarded—more than $10.5 million” (page 9). For $10.5M, the NSF could instead fund 210 scientists or scholars with $50k grants or 420 scientists with $25k grants.

I also noticed that OIG-NSF investigates spending by professors; however, the internal NSF process of awarding (quid-pro-quo, nepotism, etc.) is apparently below-the-radar. I could not find any data about program directors being indicted and serving their time, so one can assume that, unlike scientists, all NSF officers are honest people.

One can ask, why do I care? Why somebody like myself would be willing to participate in activities related to obtaining grants / money, at the first place? Of course, not because of science. However, in America your success as a scientist is measured by the amount of money you can obtain and spend. All faculty job descriptions state “create a strong externally funded research program.”

Money is mentioned in promotion criteria of our university as a scientific accomplishment (for details click here), and senior colleagues often remind you that you need to get money. Of course, they would not say “steal money somewhere, and you will get promoted!” 🙂 Instead, annual performance evaluations of my scientific work, written by more senior colleagues, state something like “you must make more efforts to convert your outstanding publication and citation record into big funding.” However, there is neither ethical way of converting publications into money, nor legal way of monetizing citation. Therefore, you start second-guessing whether your employer, senior colleagues, or the research support office are encouraging you to explore other ways, beyond the limits.

To resist this tendency, more people should be aware about such incidents as those discussed in the OIG report.

See also:

Do we need an “epistemological bang for the buck”?

Is fundraising a scientific activity?