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Goodbye Columbus

The 2010 fiscal year begins on 1 October–and among the cuts the federal government’s 2010 budget, announced on Thursday, is $1 million the Obama Administration decided not to spend on the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation (CCFF), an organization established to recognize the accomplishments of researchers and science students and educators.

This foundation started in 1992 with a mission defined by Congress to “encourage and support research, study, and labor designed to produce new discoveries in all fields of endeavor for the benefit of mankind.” CCFF’s 2008 annual report refined its mission as “to raise awareness and honor the ‘cutting edge’ research being conducted by Americans around the country, whether in schools, universities, companies or government labs and to encourage community service.”

Somewhere along the line, says the Obama Office of Management and Budget (OMB), CCFF decided to spend far more money on itself than on researchers, students, and educators. OMB noted

This Foundation has not demonstrated clear outcomes from its awards and has high overhead costs. Because of its high overhead rates, the Foundation would spend only 20 percent of its 2010 appropriation on awards. Several other Federal agencies offer fellowships for those who are producing new discoveries in science, security, and other fields of endeavor. For example, the National Science Foundation spends more than $90 million per year through its Graduate Research Fellowship Program, with much lower overhead and more measurable outcomes.

The group’s original endowment came from the sale of commemorative coins beginning in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery. The OMB report says CCFF, based in Auburn, New York, has largely burned through that endowment and now depends on government funds and private donations.

CCFF’s funding programs cover a wide range of targets. The group’s Web site describes four different categories of awards that recognize what they call Columbus Scholars for achievement in the life sciences, homeland security innovation, middle-school science projects, and honoring a teacher with disabilities. The amount of the annual awards on the Web site come to $96,000. However, the group’s 2008 annual report reported a net cost of operations that year of just under $583,000. In other words, only 16.5% of its operating budget was spent on the awards that are ostensibly the group’s main mission.

Judith Shellenberger, CCFF’s executive director, told the nearby Elmira, New York Star-Gazette that the OMB budget cutters did not take into account other activities, such as trips to Disney World and leadership training provided to the middle-school science students, and other contributions made by the foundation. “I think everything we do is what the Obama administration is promoting,” Sellenberger told the newspaper. “Since Obama’s staff is new, they are just looking for places to cut. But it’s more than dollars and cents. It’s the lives that it touches around America. We are talking about scientists, schoolteachers and students. It’s who America is.”