Climate Change: The Musical

According to its website, the National Science Foundation was created by Congress in 1950 to "promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…"  The NSF, whose FY 2014 budget was $7.2 billion, funds approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by American colleges and universities.

Here’s how the Foundation decides which proposals to fund:

At present, NSF receives more than 42,000 proposals per year. To ensure that proposals are evaluated in a fair, competitive, transparent and in-depth manner, we use a rigorous system of merit review. Nearly every proposal is evaluated by a minimum of three independent reviewers consisting of scientists, engineers and educators who do not work at NSF or for the institution that employs the proposing researchers. NSF selects the reviewers from among the national pool of experts in each field and their evaluations are confidential. On average, approximately 40,000 experts, knowledgeable about the current state of their field, give their time to serve as reviewers each year.

The reviewer's job is to decide which projects are of the very highest caliber. NSF's merit review process, considered by some to be the "gold standard" of scientific review, ensures that many voices are heard and that only the best projects make it to the funding stage. An enormous amount of research, deliberation, thought and discussion goes into award decisions.

The NSF program officer reviews the proposal and analyzes the input received from the external reviewers. After scientific, technical and programmatic review and consideration of appropriate factors, the program officer makes an "award" or "decline" recommendation to the division director. Final programmatic approval for a proposal is generally completed at NSF's division level. A principal investigator (PI) whose proposal for NSF support has been declined will receive information and an explanation of the reason(s) for declination, along with copies of the reviews considered in making the decision. If that explanation does not satisfy the PI, he/she may request additional information from the cognizant NSF program officer or division director.

If the program officer makes an award recommendation and the division director concurs, the recommendation is submitted to NSF's Division of Grants and Agreements (DGA) for award processing. A DGA officer reviews the recommendation from the program division/office for business, financial and policy implications, and the processing and issuance of a grant or cooperative agreement. DGA generally makes awards to academic institutions within 30 days after the program division/office makes its recommendation.

So, if you submitted a proposal asking for $700,000 to produce a “green” musical with songs about, say, a doomed passenger pigeon, you’d have absolutely no chance of getting the money, right?  After all, what has such tripe to do with science or engineering?  The NSF’s review process would see the proposal for what it is and toss it into the “decline” pile faster than a speeding bullet.  Right?

Not quite.  A Brooklyn-based theater company called “The Civilians” evidently knows all about the grant-review process and how to fill proposal pages with the right buzzwords.  What if a project promised to create "an experience that would be part investigative journalism and part inventive theater,” helped the public "better appreciate how science studies the Earth’s biosphere,” and increased “public awareness, knowledge and engagement with science-related societal issues”?  Maybe the proposal could sail through review after all.

It could, and it did.  Incredibly, the NSF approved the money in 2010, Grant No. 1010974, covering August 2010 through July 2014.  Climate Change: The Musical opened in New York last April and was supposed to go national after a production in Kansas City – but audiences were busy elsewhere, critics were unimpressed, and the show flopped.

Not amused, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, told Fox News: “The NSF used taxpayer dollars to underwrite political advocacy dressed up as a musical. And the project clearly failed to achieve any of its objectives.”  The NSF replied: “This particular project just concluded and the final report has not yet been submitted to NSF. The final report will contain information about project outcomes, impacts and other data.”

Whoever at The Civilians concocted the original proposal should be able to spin “metrics data” that will satisfy the NSF.  To get at the truth, Congressman Smith might consider asking the IRS to audit the company and find out how it spent the $700,000.