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Science test

Science | Senator challenges wasteful spending and grants at government funded agency

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

The National Science Foundation (NSF) received a pummeling on May 26 from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in a report the senator said identified "over $3 billion in mismanagement." The report criticized the taxpayer-funded agency for "a lack of sufficient oversight and management" in light of the discovery that, for example, NSF employees had spent hundreds of hours viewing internet pornography and, in the case of two romantically involved employees, had spent $144,152 for 47 trips together.

Coburn's 73-page report called for the NSF to tighten its belt by holding employees and researchers more accountable. It listed "wasteful" research grants, like a $314,863 study looking at the Facebook game "FarmVille" and its role in relationship-building; a $50,000 project supporting the writing of science songs, including a tacky rap song called "Money 4 Drugz" (the music video is on YouTube); and a $1.5 million robotics program featuring a robot that could fold a towel (in 20 minutes).

The NSF-funded scientists defended their research, saying Coburn had distorted the goals and value of their work. Pieter Abbeel, who worked on the robotics program, told a reporter the towel-folding task was just "a first, small step" toward developing a generation of robots that could revolutionize daily life.

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The Republican senator wants the agency to set aside social science research and focus on "transformative" projects.

Ending a plague

The viral disease rinderpest, or "cattle plague," has become the first known animal disease to be eradicated from the earth, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health in Paris. The highly contagious disease doesn't affect humans but has devastated cattle herds since Roman times, killing 80 percent or more of its cloven-hoofed hosts. A 19th-century outbreak in Africa resulted in a famine that wiped out a third of Ethiopia's human population. Rinderpest has never been found in the Western Hemisphere. The last known outbreak was in Kenya in 2001.

Following a vaccination campaign, rinderpest is the second disease believed to be successfully eliminated. The first was smallpox, last seen in 1977.

Chilling trial

In Italy, a judge has decided to allow six seismologists and a government official to be tried for manslaughter following an April 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people in the city of L'Aquila. A week before the quake, at a press conference assembled to report on recent tremors in the area, the official had said the scientists assured him there was "no danger" imminent. The seismologists later denied they ever gave such an assurance, but the city prosecutor says their risk assessment resulted in "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory public information" that they failed to correct.

When the seismologists were first indicted last year, over 5,000 scientists throughout the world condemned the charges-which carry 12-year jail sentences-as "completely unfounded" in an open letter. Earthquakes are notoriously unpredictable. Scientists fear the trial could have a chilling effect on other researchers.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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