Mulvaney said that the previous administration funded “crazy stuff” and spent too much money in its climate change efforts. “Does it mean that we are anti-science? Absolutely not,” he said. “We are simply trying to get things back in order.”
When asked during an NSF budget briefing Tuesday afternoon, Director France A. Córdova declined to say whether she felt that Mulvaney's “musical” comment characterized the current White House approach to climate research. “Just as a point of fact, that was actually awarded and proposed in 2010,” Córdova said, rather than last year, as Mulvaney suggested.
The musical in question, “The Great Immensity,” received $697,177 under a continuing grant that was awarded in August 2010 and ended in mid-2014. Brooklyn-based theater company the Civilians produced the musical. “The play uses real places and stories drawn from interviews conducted by the artists to create an experience that is part investigative journalism and part inventive theater,” according to the grant's abstract published at the NSF website. “Attendance at the performances is projected to be about 75,000.”
The narrative follows a woman whose husband, a nature filmmaker, vanished from a tropical island. Along the way, she uncovers a caper to disrupt a “Global Climate Summit” held in Paris. (The New York Times wrote that the “witty but unwieldy” production “sometimes feels as if it were constructed by an impassioned college student with a brain full of facts and a fierce determination not to turn to Big Pharma to control that pesky attention-deficit problem.”)
“The Great Immensity,” which debuted in February 2014 in Missouri, ran for about four weeks off-Broadway in New York. Republican politicians, most vocally Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), condemned the project as wasteful. As Science magazine noted in late 2014, the musical remained a “favorite target” of conservative media outlets. A September 2014 Fox News article reported that just 5 percent of the anticipated audience saw the production before it closed.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) questioned whether Smith or his staff may have leaked the attendance figures, which were not public; both Johnson and Smith, as members of House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, had access to those numbers.
Three years later, Republicans continue to hold up the dead show as the standard for taxpayer waste. Except it appears “The Great Immensity” has mutated into musicals, plural (or at least it was longer-lived, per Mulvaney). This month, in the House Science Committee authorization and oversight plan, Smith listed “climate change musicals” as examples of NSF projects that fail to meet national interest.
Under the 2018 proposal, the NSF budget would be leaner by $776 million (enough to fund 1,100 climate change musicals). The $6.7 billion NSF budget would be reset to the level it was circa 2006 or 2007, Córdova said. “We understand and appreciate the apprehension felt within the community,” she said. But Córdova also said that the budget kept the agency's “core values” intact and that it could support some 8,000 grants. The NSF would “continue to fund the very best research,” she said, “because our goal is to be the very best.”