Tech projects top $7B list of 'stupid' federal spending

Federal spending on technology may be innovative and interesting, but it can still be a prime example of government waste, according to a new report from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

Coburn’s “Wastebook 2011” annual report on allegedly squandered federal dollars highlights several projects involving Twitter, Facebook, video games, podcasts, holographs and other new technologies.

The report, released Dec. 20, showcases dozens of examples of alleged wasteful federal spending approved by Congress and federal agencies totaling nearly $7 billion. About $5 billion of the total is from Iraq War-related contracting.

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“This report details 100 of the countless unnecessary, duplicative or just plain stupid projects spread throughout the federal government and paid for with your tax dollars this year that highlight the out-of-control and shortsighted spending excesses in Washington,” Coburn wrote in the report.

Several of the projects involve new technologies and are funded by the National Science Foundation.

The list of alleged waste includes a science foundation grant to study how college students use mobile devices for social networking. The $765,000 study at the University of Notre Dame will provide smart phones to selected students and monitor their locations, digital communications on Facebook and Twitter, and online purchases.

Coburn noted that Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, whose company is partnering on the study, is a graduate of Notre Dame. Hesse was not immediately available for comment.

Coburn also takes the science foundation to task for funding a study of whether Twitter is considered a trustworthy source of information. The agency provided $492,055 to Wellesley College researchers to determine how Twitter users use the social network to make decisions and obtain information.

“To Trust or Not to Trust Tweets, That is the Question,” Coburn wrote in his report, listing the study as the #34 example of government waste.

He also scolds the science foundation for providing $300,000 to the University of Alaska to develop educational podcasts about scientific research being conducted in the polar environment. The podcasts are to be offered to tourists to state’s national parks. The tools also will incorporate Facebook, Twitter and other social media into the tourist’s experience.

“Next time tourists in Alaska wonder what to do with a backseat full of cranky kids, they‘ll have the National Science Foundation to thank for coming up with a solution,” Coburn wrote about the project, which he listed as example #32.

Other tech-related projects cited as examples on Coburn’s waste list included:

  • $100,000 to the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, an educational center devoted to video game preservation and study that is part of the nonprofit National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y.
  • $96,000 in economic stimulus law funding used to purchase iPads for kindergarten students in Auburn, Maine. “Technology is something that students should be acclimated to at an early age. However, it may be wise to get them to read and write first before they are handed an iPad,” Coburn wrote.
  • $24 million to the Milwaukee Public Museum for an exhibit on mummies utilizing three-dimensional, high-definition holographic images. Coburn wrote that taxpayers are essentially paying twice for the mummy exhibit, since individuals are charged $24 admission to the museum.
Coburn's annual list is always controversial, and many of the projects deemed wasteful have their defenders.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Jan 3, 2012 Mimi CO

The project I was on for the previous 8 years didn't make this list, but it deserves mention. The Govt often wastes years and million$ developing an application that military users had no use for in the first place. This prototype application limped along, migrating from reserach to operations with no user requirements or concept of how to use it in operations. It was developmentally tested with poor reviews. Fortunately, it lost funding and died. Fraud, Waste & Abuse is rampant in Govt projects and contractors scheme to take max advantage of these situations.

Tue, Jan 3, 2012 Walter Washington

Some of these do seem silly. I don't know anyone that would use Tweets as a basis for policy decisions. The holographic mummy would be cool, but for that price, they better show more than a static image of a dead body wrapped in cloth strips. On the other hand, I think Coburn misses the point on some of these projects. I could see how a touch pad of some sort would make for a great learning tool for kids. You could install all sorts of learning games that would help the kids with spelling and math. They could put ebooks on them for the kids to read. The cell phone research would be very valuable for marketting and development of now cell phone modifications. I would not be surprised if Department of Commerce is also in on that one. I don't care what college is working on it, if the sponsor has contacts at Notre Dame and can get permission to run the project out of that school, it is their business. It isn't open to bidding since all they are doing is providing a venue for the research. NSF is partnering with private industry to share the cost and benefit a US industry with research. That is part of their job.

Thu, Dec 22, 2011 55Zeke Washington

Let's not forget Tom Coburn puts together this list every year while collecting his $174,000 salary from tax payer dollars for working about 6 months out of the year.

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