Science Friday producer settles with government over alleged misuse of NSF funds

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A for-profit corporation involved with public radio’s weekly Science Friday show has settled with the U.S. government over alleged misuse of a National Science Foundation grant awarded from August 2009 to July 2011.

In the settlement announced Tuesday by the District of Connecticut U.S. Attorney’s Office, ScienceFriday Inc. and Ira Flatow, ScienceFriday’s president and host of the radio show, will pay $145,541 to resolve allegations that they mishandled NSF funds. The company also agreed to exclusion from participation in federal programs, grants and contracts until Sept. 15, 2015.

ScienceFriday Inc. is a for-profit corporation based in Stamford, Conn., that produced Science Friday during the time of the contested NSF funding. The show is now produced by Science Friday Initiative, a nonprofit that contracts with the for-profit corporation for Flatow’s time and the show’s branding and logos.

According to the settlement, ScienceFriday Inc. received the NSF grant “for the purpose of extending the impact of its weekly National Public Radio program to a new and younger audience through the use of cyber-space platforms and interactive tools such as Facebook and Twitter.”

The NSF’s Office of Inspector General investigated ScienceFriday’s use of the grant funds and found several alleged deficiencies:

  • ScienceFriday submitted nine false financial reports certifying that all disbursements “have been made for the purposes and conditions . . . of the [Award]”;
  • It submitted 19 false cash advance requests to the U.S. government certifying that the requests for advance were correct;
  • ScienceFriday maintained a “time and effort system” that could not track the time spent working on the grant and the amount of salary charged to it; and
  • The company “inappropriately used grant money to cover unallowable and unsupported costs.”

The company will also adhere to a five-year compliance plan if it stands to receive any additional NSF funding. Flatow and ScienceFriday complied with the government’s investigation, according to the DOJ release, and did not admit liability or wrongdoing by entering into the settlement.

A DOJ spokesperson declined to comment further on the settlement.

Read the full DOJ press release here.

UPDATE (Tuesday, Sept. 16, 12:17 p.m.): In a statement, Science Friday said: “Federal grants are complex and require a significant amount of compliance work to show that money is being spent in the proper way. In the years since the grant was awarded, Science Friday Initiative has strengthened its administrative operation, bringing in new management, including a new Executive Director and creating the position of Chief Financial Officer. We have also tightened our policies around bookkeeping and budgeting. We are committed to being good stewards of all of our funders’ investments with us, and our new management structure ensures that we maintain rigorous compliance going forward.”

UPDATE (Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2:02 p.m.):  “I don’t agree with the conclusions of the investigation,” Flatow told Current. The Science Friday host said NSF approved his spending plan three times and that he “spent the money exactly how I said I would . . . on time and actually under budget.” He also used standard accounting techniques and an accountant with 20 years of experience.

Science Friday had received NSF grants for four years prior to the contested funds and “spent everything the same way all this time,” he said. “Why am I suddenly being penalized for sticking with the same standards?”

Flatow pointed out that Boston’s WGBH and New York’s WNET have both paid settlements to the government in similar cases. Another independent producer told Flatow that paying back 15 percent of his grant was “like a tip,” he said. “You’re paying the tip to the government for doing business with them.”

He guessed that NSF spent more litigating the matter than they recovered in the settlement. “The only conclusion I can come to is that NSF is under pressure from Congress to cut back on science spending and education,” he said. “Education and outreach are easy targets for them.”

Flatow will pay the settlement costs directly, and production of Science Friday will not be affected since the show is now produced by a separate nonprofit. “No one will be penalized for this except me,” Flatow said.