More on Investigating NSF

Ars Technica shares some more details on the investigation by the House into documents on a few grants made by NSF continues. In this article they go into somewhat greater detail about the kerfluffle around a grant to update the Paleobiology database. What stands out is that but the university receiving the grant and the society representing the scientists who use that database both felt the need to prepare statements objecting to the investigation of this grant. PI Peters was quoted as saying “A huge amount of expensive time was spent dealing with this absurd and unjustified request.”

GG would really like to know how this went down.  The request was to NSF for all their paperwork; GG hasn’t seen anything indicating that the request extended to the PI or his or her home institutions. So was this a direct response to a request from a House committee, or was it a preemptive strike to limit any damage?

There are a few scenarios as to what is going on, and the investigators from the House are staying pretty tight-lipped about this.

  1. This is a witch hunt, and the Paleobiology database is a target
  2. This is a witch hunt, and the broad support for the Paleobiology database would allow the staffers to make other grants look bad in comparison
  3. This is a witch hunt and the Paleobiology database just happened to get caught in the net
  4. This is legitimate oversight and the Paleobiology database drew a short straw.

Clearly the tone from both the PI, home university and professional society is that they believe in #1.  It would be interesting to know if this is the case; presumably their suspicions are aroused because of statements like this from the Ars article and quoting committee staff member: “Some grants for which the committee has requested information have previously attracted constituent, [Committee] Member, or press questions. Others have been selected because the subject matter seems interesting. Still others are selected randomly to assure the cross-section alluded to above.” So you could argue that some of the grants are indeed the target of committee wrath.

If the paleobiology database really is a target, it isn’t clear that these statements are going to be a big help. One would think that the committee might suspect that there was some kind of inappropriate preference given to this work, perhaps by the program manager; would statements from the university and society really convince the committee that such misbehavior was absent?  Might it come across the wrong way?

The irony is that it is highly unlikely that any special treatment was given to such work; ironically it is likely that less high profile work done in home districts of some representatives on the committee might have benefited from discretion of the program manager. Would the committee be willing to single out the researchers in their own districts?


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