Attacks on federal research funding anger scientists

Politicians lay siege to the National Science Foundation.

 

In 2006, two marine biologists published the results of an experiment that will enshrine them in the annals of scientific history: They put a shrimp on a treadmill. 

The unorthodox research was designed to study how changing ocean conditions affect animals’ resistance to disease. But the study’s purpose was overshadowed by its methodology after the biologists — Lou Burnett, at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and David Scholnick, at Pacific University in Oregon — posted a video of the jogging crustacean to YouTube. The clip went viral; today, you can watch the decapod working out to Eye of the Tiger, the Benny Hill theme song, and Justin Timberlake’s Sexyback.     

But the shrimp’s saga later took a dark turn. In 2011, Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, included the federally funded experiment in his annual “Wastebook,” a compendium of supposedly frivolous government spending. Suddenly the shrimp was everywhere — skewered on a thousand websites, fried by talking heads, roasted in an AARP commercial. “I don't want my shrimp going to the gym," groused Mike Huckabee. Overnight, shrimp-on-a-treadmill had gone from charming internet curio to deplorable embodiment of government waste. 

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The whole episode would be funnier if it didn’t embody a metastasizing trend: attacks on government-funded science. No longer is it just Wastebooks that impugn the value of research. In October, Science reported on investigations led by Representative Lamar Smith, R-Texas, into federal grant-making procedures. Reported Jeffrey Mervis: 

Four times this past summer, in a spare room on the top floor of the headquarters of the National Science Foundation (NSF) outside of Washington, D.C., two congressional staffers spent hours poring over material relating to 20 research projects that NSF has funded over the past decade... The Republican aides were looking for anything that (Smith)... could use to support his ongoing campaign to demonstrate how the $7 billion research agency is “wasting” taxpayer dollars on frivolous or low-priority projects, particularly in the social sciences.

Smith has insisted that he’s not waging war on science — he’s just trying to make agencies more transparent and accountable. “If we, as a country, have decided to spend taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars on funding science and research, then we need to spend wisely,” he wrote recently

Utility isn’t a bad criterion for funding decisions. But what research is useful, anyway — and who decides? Smith and Coburn (who recently retired from the Senate to focus on his health) have tended to target their attacks at projects whose topics or methodology can be distilled into absurdist sound-bites, ripe for media pick-up. We’re spending how much studying ancient Icelandic textiles? Mayan architecture? Shrimp on a treadmill? The folly is meant to be self-evident.  

Recently retired Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, was famous for his Wastebook, an annual compendium of alleged government largesse that included many research grants. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.
Yet self-styled watchdogs often seem willfully blind to the benefits of the research they assail. One of the items in Coburn’s 2014 Wastebook was the $856,000 spent by Terrie Williams, a professor of ecology at University of California, Santa Cruz, to train mountain lions to walk on a treadmill. According to Williams, however, Coburn deliberately glossed over the project’s real objective, which was to develop a “high-tech wildlife collar that measured the instantaneous energy use, hunting behavior and movement patterns of large carnivores… In the process, (the collars) will help save human lives, our pets and livestock, as well as the large predatory mammals that represent the top-of-the-food chain’ glue holding our ecosystems together.”  


The fact is, even superficially goofy methods can yield huge rewards. One project that entailed massaging baby rats with a brush, for instance, produced new treatments for premature human babies. “Scientists and engineers, particularly young ones, should not be discouraged from pursuing unconventional, often groundbreaking scientific research,” warned the Association of American Universities in response to Smith’s inquiries. NSF grants have helped us fight acid rain, close the hole in the ozone layer, confirm the existence of black holes. Every time you do your shopping, you can thank NSF for the barcodes on your groceries. 

Would the research that generated those discoveries have survived fanatical Congressional scrutiny? Quite possibly it would have provoked the same criticism as the work of Mont Hubbard, a professor of mechanical engineering at University of California, Davis, whose $300,000 grant to study bicycle design was among those pilloried by Smith. Starting in 2009, Hubbard had used NSF funding to build two experimental bicycles — one robotic, the other propelled by a rider, both outfitted by sensors — to better understand the dynamics between vehicles and humans. Comprehending that interaction, Hubbard says, could help improve the design of any number of machines. “Airplanes, helicopters, and automobiles are all dynamic systems."

To Hubbard’s mind, the fact that his proposal received NSF funding proves its merit. You wouldn’t know it from reading Coburn's Wastebook, but the federal government doesn’t give grants away like Halloween candy: Just 20 percent of applications receive funding, and the process is famously rigorous. Hubbard’s grant, like any other, was reviewed by a panel of experts; it would have received at least three written reviews and, along with other proposals in its category, been the subject of two days of in-person debate. Says Hubbard: “For (Smith and his aides) to think that they know better than the experts who are devoted to science, who deeply value the process, and who understand what NSF has given this country is absurd.”

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All of this mean doesn’t necessarily mean that every NSF grant is worth its funding. We all know that government is capable of largesse, and NSF and other science-funding agencies aren’t immune. Still, Lamar Smith and whoever succeeds Coburn as Wastebook curator (along with reporters who lap up their sound-bites) could engage honestly with research’s potential benefits, rather than reducing projects to punchlines. Recall that the much-mocked treadmill shrimp experiment was aimed at studying resistance to marine pathogens — like, say, the densovirus now turning starfish to mush along the West Coast.

And if Smith wants to carve out federal fat, he might devote his attention elsewhere. We could fund the NSF for the next 60 years with what the Pentagon is spending on F-35s, warplanes that may not be able to “reliably fly.” If only someone was studying the mechanics of human-manipulated vehicles.

Ben Goldfarb is a Seattle-based correspondent for High Country News.