The Internet is indeed a wonder of our age. Why, just last night, while watching the DVD of Inherit the Wind (it's Darwin's bicentennial birthday week as I write), I was able to simultaskically discover that Fredric March and Florence Eldridge, who play Matthew and Sarah Brady, were married in real life and often performed together in movies and on stage. (Inherit the Wind, by the way, is actually a bombastically bad movie. But it's fun.) My research was over before Matthew, a character based on William Jennings Bryan, could finish one of his long-winded speeches.
Of course, easy access to such tantalizing data has the potential for misuse. Which clearly was the case at the National Science Foundation (NSF), where an employee spent a significant amount of time at work perusing pornography. At least that's the official report if he claimed he was investigating grant applications from researchers investigating human reproduction, well, it didn't fly.
The incident, and some other porn-related surfing by a handful of other NSF employees, was revealed in the foundation's semiannual report issued by its inspector general. The primary porn culprit lost his job based on the misuse of time and resources that was estimated to have wasted some $58,000. And the foundation installed filters, just as countless other employers in the U.S. have done when faced with exactly this same kind of abuse of company resources. NSF employees looking for dirty pictures will henceforth have to be content with medical journals.
With the audit having been published, the NSF got back to work supporting and promoting scientific research. That is until Iowa senator Charles Grassley noticed the foundation's report. The waste wasn't just playing computer solitaire or Freecell, or instant-messaging friends or searching the Internet for movie trivia. This was porn.
At first, Grassley was mildly intrigued. Perhaps he gently caressed the hard copy of the internal audit, its creamy white pages glistening under the gentle light of a desk lamp. As the senator read about a government-funded employee viewing lascivious images in the workplace, his heart must have pounded. When he reached the mention of the $58,000, his pulse no doubt shot up and he might have softly moaned. Then he and the NSF semiannual report became one. And his outrage exploded like a volcano that could no longer contain the roiling molten lava within. "The semiannual report," Grassley said in a press release, "raises real questions about how the National Science Foundation manages its resources, and Congress ought to demand a full accounting before it gives the agency another $3 billion in the stimulus bill."
Grassley then joined with Senators Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Richard Shelby of Alabama to share their indignation at the waste of the taxpayers' money. (Again, the porn addict was already gone, despite the fact that a federally funded worker who loses only $58,000 in this economy should probably be nominated for employee of the month.) The three senators introduced an amendment to the roughly $800-billion stimulus bill that would freeze $3 million in operating funds for the NSF unless the foundation took further steps to ensure that no pornography ever sullied its computer screens again.
Much of this information came to me from a source at the Senate Finance Committee, of which Grassley is the ranking member. I made repeated requests of the source to assure me that the senatorial threats against the NSF would not cost any scientists their funding. The answers were inconclusive and then stopped altogether. While this tempest in a D-cup made news, the former NSF employee was joined by 598,000 other Americans who lost their jobs in January.