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US Senator Tom Coburn says our research is wasteful government spending

by Jason Moore — last modified Jun 19, 2011 10:40 PM
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A recent report written by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) lampooned the National Science foundation for funding an assortment of projects, claiming that the projects are a waste of the tax payers money. Our project on bicycle dynamics and control was one these. We beg to differ.

A report entitled the "The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope." was written and released by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) in April of 2011. Senator Coburn wrote the report to tell the American public the bad news about the NSF:

The bad news is a significant percentage of your money is going to what most Americans will consider fraud, waste and abuse, and there are many areas where NSF could contribute far more with better management and smarter targeting of resources.

It turns out that our bicycle dynamics and control project is at the top of Senator Coburn's list of wasteful projects. He says (emphasis is mine):

Very few of the proposals submitted for NSF financial support represented transformative scientific research according to most grant reviewers surveyed. Taxpayers may also question the value of many of the projects NSF actually chose to fund, such as: How to ride a bike; When did dogs became man’s best friend; If political views are genetically pre-determined; How to improve the quality of wine; Do boys like to play with trucks and girls like to play with dolls; How rumors get started; If parents choose trendy baby names; How much housework does a husband create for a wife; and When is the best time to buy a ticket to a sold out sporting event.

I'm sure there are wasteful elements to the NSF funding process and that there is a certain percentage tax payer's money that isn't utilized in the best way, but overall the NSF is a funding agency that is certainly a major economic driving force for our country. And it was obvious that the Senator didn't look beyond the title of these projects, and certainly didn't contact any of the researchers and ask them how they are spending the money.

We heard about the report a couple of weeks ago and found out that our project was featured. Here are a few reasons why I think that our project is a very fruitful and worthwhile project for the taxpayers to fund:

The project budget

We were awarded $300,000 for a two year study. Right off the bat ~50% of the money goes to UC Davis as overhead to support general costs to run the institution and support researchers. So half the money helps all research at the University (hopefully...). Secondly, the grant funds two PhD graduate students to work way over full time on the research project for about $23,000 per student per year. NSF funding is clever like that, they pay highly qualified individuals to do government research for poverty wages under the premise that the workers get a very valuable degree (although the value seems to be a bit decreasing). $40,000 funds two senior professors to work on the project part time over two years. $8,000 is for travel to present our work at conferences (one of the most important and effective ways of sharing and collaborating with other researchers). And finally about $13,000 is for the experimental apparatus (two instrumented bicycles).

The bicycle as an experimental platform

The bicycles are an exceptionally tractable and economical platform to study how human's control machines. It turns out that the bicycle itself is such a rich dynamic system that a human has to utilize all of the feedback information available to control the vehicle, which is not necessarily true for airplanes and automobiles. Human control theory has far reaching applications from controlling a fighter jet, riding a skateboard to how we balance while we walk or control a robotic surgical tool. This reaches across the spectrum of society and the better we know how human's interact with their environment, the better we make their lives. The cost of studying human control in a flight simulator or a full scale aircraft dwarfs our budget by millions, yet we are able to fundamentally study the sames things (i.e. a human senses her motion and reacts according to control some kind of machine). I'm sure we didn't focus on this aspect enough, but it is probably the single most important reason to fund projects like ours. We are studying human control in one of most economical ways.


This is a quote from our professor, Ron Hess,:

Our award supports and enriches the education of both undergraduate and graduate engineering students and, in doing so, prepares them for entry into challenging technical fields whose growth is vital to the US economy.

This is so very true. Erico Guizzo from IEEE agrees too and reminds us that:

For instance, when NSF funded a graduate research fellow in the early 1990s to study digital libraries, we couldn’t predict that that graduate student would co-found Google.

I'm not claiming to be the next Google founder, but I'm surely going to go out into our society and provide a positive impact to many aspects including our economy, not to mention all the students we've mentored over the past year and a half.

We need more people riding bicycles in the USA

There are numerous benefits to increasing bicycle usage as an important form of transportation in this country. If we could raise the 0.1% trips by bicycle to something like 10%, we'd save the country billions of dollars. Here are favorite reasons why:

  • Healthcare: What if people in our country were healthier? If they were we'd surely spends tons less on health care. One way to do this is decrease the sedentary lifestyle we've embrace in the USA and the bicycle is a fantastic way to get folks off their couches and out getting a bit of exercise. We have one of the most obese nations in the world, bicycling could help change that.
  • Oil dependency: The more trips we do by bicycle, the less oil we have to have to transport folks around. Most trips by car are under five miles. We are burning up our oil reserves just to get a short distance down the road. Using a bicycle instead would save us and the country loads of money.
  • Pollution: How much do we spend battling pollution? And who likes breathing it in? Bicycling decreases pollution too.
  • Infastructure: Instead of widening roads and building more interstates, we could spend that money to build far much more infrastruture for bicycles, so that people could feel comfortable and safe while riding their bike to the grocery store. Bicycle and pedestrian infastructure is much cheaper than that needed for automobiles.
  • Space: Cars and parking take up tons of our urban landscape. Bicycles don't. If the tax payers have  got to pay for the personal parking for everyone, then why not pay for bicycle parking, where at least 10 bikes can fit in the size of a car parking space...doesn't it make sense economically to support bicycles?
  • The list goes on...

We know that our bicycle dynamics and control discoveries aren't going allow us to invent the utimate bicycle that convinces everyone to start riding, but it is a piece of the puzzle. The more we fund projects related to bicycling, the better and better bicycling will get. Imagine where we would be if the US government didn't off load tons of cash into NASA during the space race. We sure wouldn't have made it to the moon, but more importantly we wouldn't have many of the benefits of techonolgies that were interconnected to space research to improve our lives and drive our economy.


I hope that Senator Coburn had good intentions with this report, but he needs to do more research before laying out these baseless claims. There are far more places in the US government that actually do waste our tax money that he could focus his efforts on. I on the other hand, am going to continue to work hard and utilize the money that I've been awarded by the NSF in the best way that I can, and hope that I contribute to the improvement of our society.

Update July 12, 2011:

Scientists are telling congress to lay off! And let the time tested peer review system control what projects get funded.

Universities, Research Organizations Ask Lawmakers To Avoid Interfering With Grants.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (7/11) reports in a brief article in its "The Ticker" section that "a group of 140 research universities and scientific societies has written to key lawmakers asking them to avoid interfering with the merit-based process for allocating federal research money." The ASEE was one of the organizations that signed on to the letter. An online version of it is available here (pdf). The signatories "said they were especially alarmed by moves in Congress to eliminate specific projects supported by the National Science Foundation...whose scientific value may not be apparent to nonexperts and thus appear ripe for political exploitation." 

Letter can be seen here:


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Nice write up.

Avatar Posted by Stephen Cain at Jun 21, 2011 06:24 PM
Nice write up, Jason...hope all is well in Davis.

Bicycle "research"

Avatar Posted by sam carpenter at Jun 27, 2011 10:11 PM
You have got to be kidding. What an incredible waste, under the guise of advancing science. Look in the mirror tonight and be honest with yourself: "Contribute to the improvement of our society"? Jeeze. Get a job.

Some more...

Avatar Posted by Stephen Cain at Jun 27, 2011 10:11 PM
Just took a look at the 'report'; quite ridiculous. There needs to be a review process for the things that politicians say and write. I would like to see a report called 'Tom Coburn: Under the Microscope.'

We are the reviewers

Avatar Posted by Jason Moore at Jul 02, 2011 04:38 PM
Hey Stephen,

Thanks for reading into this. Interesting huh? I just wanted to comment that we are in fact the reviewers of the politicians. Hopefully folks will think twice about voting for him if we continue to "review" his work.

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