Sunday, February 1, 2009

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley is right on waste, wrong on science

Here's a draft of the Press-Citizen Editorial Board's "Our View" for Monday:

We’re pleased that Sen. Charles Grassley represents Iowa so well when it comes to ferreting out misuses of tax-exempt status.

When Grassley questions how university athletics departments give out luxury box tickets in exchange for large “donations,” and when he begins scrutinizing televangelists for how they use the millions they rake in, he brings his Iowa common sense to bear on potential tax abuses. (It almost lets us forgive his attempts to secure a nearly $50 million earmark grant for the failed rain forest project.)

And we want Grassley to speak out when he discovers such an egregious example of government waste as one senior staff member of the National Science Foundation spending as much as 20 percent of his time during a two-year period at lurid Web sites and in sexually explicit chat rooms. According to a semiannual report that described numerous investigations into the misuse of the Internet by foundation employees, that time cost taxpayers more than $40,000. Other employees were alleged to have watched, downloaded and e-mailed porn over years.

We’re glad that Iowa’s senior senator takes his watch-dog responsibilities so seriously that he sent a letter to the NSF’s Office of Inspector General asking for all the documents it has related to the inappropriate use of the foundation’s network. Grassley understands that sometimes these abuses are so widespread that there needs to be an investigation into “the culture of an organization where this occurs.”

But Grassley goes too far when, in interview with the Associated Press Thursday, he called on Congress to reconsider the $3 billion in funding to the NSF that’s included in the current stimulus bill. He wants Congress to wait on the funding until his questions are answered.

Because the NSF provides about 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by the nation’s colleges and universities, it hardly seems appropriate for Grassley to try to hold up funding for researchers throughout the nation because of the bad Internet habits of foundation employees.

And it hardly seems a productive way to “restore science to its rightful place,” as President Obama said in his inaugural address.

Besides, spokesman Jeff Nesbit said the foundation is cooperating and already has taken steps to address the inspector general’s report. Several employees have been disciplined and at least three staffers were fired because of their inappropriate use of the Internet.

“NSF immediately implemented additional IT systems controls to focus in particular on enforcement of the foundation’s long-standing policy prohibiting the use of its IT systems to access sexually explicit, gambling and other inappropriate Web sites,’’ Nesbit said in a written statement.

Any employees found to have broken this policy — especially as blatantly as the report alleges — should be fired. But the broader cultural change we’d like to see involves the entire federal government, not just the NSF. It’s time to ensure that the government’s stances on topics ranging from abstinence-only education to stem-cell research are based on scientific rigor rather than on pre-determined ideology — as they were during the Bush administration.

If “science is restored to its rightful place,” then maybe those in charge of allocating scientific funding would recognize that they have much more important things to do with their time than watch Internet porn.

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