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Porn among National Science Foundation's "research"

National Science Foundation (NSF) employees wasted scads of time and tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars perusing online porn on the clock—and Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley (R–Iowa) wants to know how such lapses could occur at a $6-billion federal agency.

The accounts of employees' surfing for smut are documented in the NSF’s semiannual report (pdf), which was published in September and notes seven cases of pornographic exploits among the foundation's 1,500 employees uncovered by Thomas Cross, the foundation’s inspector general (IG).

“The semiannual report raises serious questions about how the National Science Foundation manages its resources," Grassley said in a statement today. "Congress ought to demand a full accounting before it gives the agency another $3 billion in the stimulus bill" set to be debated by the Senate next week. (The House passed an $819 billion version of the package yesterday.)

In a letter sent to Cross on Tuesday, Grassley requested that the IG send him all pertinent audit and other reports relating to the NSF investigation to "ensure that NSF properly fulfills its mission to strengthen scientific and engineering research, and makes responsible use of the public funding provided for these research disciplines." Grassley received the documents today, after The Politico published a story on the investigation yesterday.

Among the IG's findings: “Six cases of viewing, downloading, saving and/or sharing pornographic images or videos, and one case of extensive participation in pornographic chat Web sites and the concomitant significant waste of official time.” None of the offenders are identified in the report.

Some other highlights:

  • A senior official spent two years “repeatedly and excessively” surfing porn sites at the office and 20 percent of his work hours having “sexually explicit chats” with women online. His activities amounted to a potential loss of more than $58,000 for the NSF—and more than $40,300 of his own money. His exploits “adversely affected the workplace, making it offensive and hostile,” the report says. The official retired when he was told that he would be dismissed, says NSF spokesperson Jeff Nesbit.
  • Action is pending against another employee who continued to use peer-to-peer software to store porn on his NSF computer after being reprimanded and told to stop. He also sent pornographic images and videos via email from his NSF account and surfed porn sites during his workday.
  • Other employees were verbally admonished or briefly suspended for porn found on their hard drives. Staff who saw the workers viewing porn or heard explicit sounds emanating from their colleagues’ computers “were acutely embarrassed,” the report says.


In addition to suspending three employees and notifying another three that they'd be dismissed, the foundation has installed filtering software on its computers to block smut, and reiterated that staff must take an online test to make sure they know what is and isn’t allowed on government computers.

"NSF takes the issue of appropriate use of taxpayer resources very seriously, and has communicated its commitment to enforcing proper IT use policies to congressional oversight committees that have asked about the IG report," Nesbit said in a statement. "The agency has a long-standing policy prohibiting the inappropriate use of government IT resources—including the viewing, downloading, or playing of sexually explicit material. NSF employees and contractors know that because they are using taxpayer resources, they can expect no right to privacy for any information used or shared on an NSF system."

The NSF funds 10,000 research grants each year at U.S. colleges and universities. Nesbit wouldn't answer a question about whether the foundation believes it's being unfairly targeted. "We're just doing our job here," Nesbit tells ScientificAmerican.com.

Image © iStockphoto/Jacob Wackerhausen

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