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Will the Senate nix National Science Foundation funds in wake of porn scandal?

A bipartisan group of senators Thursday introduced a measure that would put a hold on $3 million in operating funds for the National Science Foundation (NSF) after an internal probe revealed that employees there accessed smut on government computers.

The measure, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa), Barbara Mikulski (D–Md.) and Richard Shelby (R–Ala.), was offered as an amendment to the stimulus package now being debated in the Senate. It calls for the funds to be frozen until the NSF takes certain steps to prevent future Internet porn surfing, including hiring an independent counsel to provide oversight and reporting to Congress on progress made stemming access.

The move comes after the agency in its semiannual report released in September said that its inspector general, Thomas Cross, had uncovered seven cases in which NSF staffers were spending time on taxpayers' dime trolling the Net for porn.

"The kind of behavior outlined in the inspector general's report is outrageous, repugnant and illegal," Mikulski said in a statement. "It won't be tolerated. The NSF must get its act together and take the steps we've outlined to restore the kind of accountability and decency the public deserves from its federal agencies."

Among the most serious abuses outlined was that of an unnamed "senior official," who was reported to have spent two years "repeatedly and excessively" surfing porn sites at the office and 20 percent of his paid work hours engaging in sexually explicit online chats. According to the report, his extracurricular activities amounted to the potential loss of more than $58,000 for the NSF and more than $40,000 of his own money. The employee resigned after he was told that he would otherwise be sacked, according to NSF spokesperson Jeff Nesbit.

"It's inexcusable that workers at the NSF were watching pornography rather than doing their jobs and respecting the taxpayers who fund their work," Grassley said in offering the amendment. "And what’s more troubling is a culture that would allow such widespread abuse of taxpayer dollars."

Nesbit said that the foundation had installed filtering software on its computers to block access to porn sites and is working with lawmakers to prevent future such problems.

The NSF funds 10,000 research grants annually at U.S. universities.

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