Is SingAboutScience.org a waste of taxpayer money?

May 26, 2011

Sen. Tom Coburn, M.D. of Oklahoma has released a 73-page critique of the National Science Foundation titled Under the Microscope. It includes descriptions of about 50 NSF-funded projects that Sen Coburn considers “questionable.” Among these is an undergraduate biology education project, known online as SingAboutScience.org, led by Wendy Silk of UC-Davis and me.

The report states:

…Using these funds, Drs. Silk and Crowther have produced and/or highlighted an entire database of online videos featuring songs about science. Dr. Crowther has personally wrote [sic], recorded, and uploaded dozens of songs, including the “Money 4 Drugz” rap video, a song more about getting funding than about science itself…. Other songs composed by Dr. Crowther found on the website include “Glucose, Glucose,” set to the tune of “Sugar, Sugar,” and “Myofibrils” sung to the beat of “My Sharona.” In total, Dr. Crowther has recorded more than 20 videos found on the website, which proudly proclaims it is funded by the National Science Foundation.

This section of the report concludes, “NSF should stick to science and leave music and rap to the recording industry.”

I feel compelled to address two distinct aspects of the report. First, its summary of our project is highly misleading. It states that (1) we have received NSF funding and (2) we have made a bunch of science song videos. These points are true, but the implication that the funding has primarily been used to create the songs and videos is false. In fact, upon awarding this grant, NSF specifically asked us not to focus on creating songs, and we have honored the request. Instead, Wendy and I have worked to build a network of interested educators, scientists, and musicians, and to develop online tools to support their activities. The merits of these efforts can be debated, but the dozens of emails I’ve received from K-16 teachers complimenting me on our online database suggest that we are doing something right.

(Also, to nitpick a bit, “Glucose, Glucose” and “Myofibrils” were written and recorded in 2004, six years before the start of the NSF grant, and I have uploaded a total of six science song videos, not more than 20, and these are hosted by YouTube, not SingAboutScience.org. But I digress.)

What’s most important here, however, is not the senator’s misconceptions about our particular project but rather his broader implication that music has no place in the realm of science. I emphatically disagree.

Sen. Coburn opens his report with a letter to taxpayers in which he says, “We are all concerned about America falling behind the rest of the world in math and science. ” This concern is completely appropriate. So what can we do to make America more scientifically literate? As a graduate of medical school and a practicing physician, Sen. Coburn presumably finds science both understandable and interesting. Sadly, this is not true of a majority of Americans. How can we engage these not-scientifically-inclined students and adults? How can we show them that a solid understanding of science is both within their reach and enriching to their lives?

There is no simple answer, but we’d be foolish not to consider music as a potential way of reaching these reluctant learners of science. Beyond its vital role in helping people memorize foundational facts, music can remove many barriers to learning, as detailed by Merryl Goldberg in her book “Arts integration: teaching subject matter through the arts in multicultural settings,” now in its 4th edition. In my own classroom teaching, I’ve received anonymous student comments such as, “The fact that you would do live performances personally showed me your dedication and enthusiasm for the class, which also helped encourage mine.” Songs won’t help EVERY student learn more science, but why not make them available to those who can benefit?

Wendy and I are by no means the first people to have stumbled upon the idea of teaching science and math through music. There are hundreds of commercially available CDs designed for this specific purpose (see SongsForTeaching.com for examples), and thousands if not millions of parents, teachers and students use such CDs. Doesn’t it seem worthwhile to figure out how to use these songs most effectively?

Sen. Coburn asks readers of his report to consider three questions in evaluating NSF projects: “Is this research potentially transformative? Does it represent an important scientific idea? Is it an appropriate expenditure of federal funds at a time when our national debt is over $14 trillion?”

These are reasonable questions. Based on my own experiences, I would answer: Yes, this work is transformative; I’ve personally seen science students transformed from bored onlookers into enthusiastic participants. That makes it potentially important as well. And spending $50,000 on such activities as maintaining the world’s best free online database of science and math songs, so that teachers and students (and others) can find songs relevant to scientific material they are covering? Sounds like a bargain to me.

[Related links: Scientists Cry Foul Over Report Criticizing National Science Foundation; Funny Science Sparks Serious Spat]


  1. Well said! My students loved your Drugz video and at a time when video is an increasingly important communication medium, you are teaching more than science. You are also teaching how to communicate a complex idea in an accessible way. This senator is a prime example of someone who is hopelessly out of touch with today's population of learners.

  2. Good response, son.

  3. I applaud you for taking the high road Greg, but you're implicitly giving Coburn (and his staffers, who presumably produced the report) way too much credit. The report is a way for Coburn to pretend to be a Very Serious Person and deficit hawk while actually avoiding talking about programs that (unlike the entire NSF) actually make up a significant share of the Federal budget. He's catering to people who think that the government 'wastes' significant amounts of money on frivolous expenditures. Which is just false. Like Paul Krugman says, to an excellent first approximation the US government is basically an insurance company with an army. So unless you're talking about how to raise revenues, and/or cut the big entitlement programs and defense (which btw means also talking about how we'll manage without the stuff that that spending buys), you're just playing to people's ignorance and prejudices in an attempt to win votes.You've taken the high road in your willingness to debate Coburn on the merits of singaboutscience.com. But unfortunately, even the fact that you're debating this means that Coburn, and the sorts of people he's trolling for votes from, have already won. Neither Coburn nor anyone on his staff gives a rat's a** about whether singaboutscience.com is actually worthwhile, and nothing you say could possibly convince them that it is worthwhile. You might as well try to reasonably debate a creationist.There was a time when I was optimistic that, if enough people (esp. people in power) would just hang in there against this kind of crap and continue taking the high road like you have, we'd 'change the game' and Coburn's kind of crap would cease to be viewed as a legitimate, vote-winning political tactic. But President Obama himself has been trying to take the high road for two years now and I can't see any evidence that he's 'changed the game'. Quite the opposite–I think he's just enabled and encouraged his opponents to behave even more cynically.It pains me that our horrid politics is now dragging in (and wasting the time of) a good friend. Hang in there buddy, it sucks that you have to deal with this garbage.

  4. Spoken like a thoughtful and creative teacher! Jeremy's comments provide an excellent reality check.

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