I felt a sense of déjà vu Tuesday morning when I heard NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce reporting on Senator Tom Coburn’s attacks on National Science Foundation-funded research. I realized that the same thing happened last August, and I wrote about it in a post called “Scoring Political Points by Misunderstanding Science.” Last year, the report mocked research into addiction and older adults’ cognition (among many other projects) because the projects involved administering cocaine to monkeys and introducing senior citizens to Wii games. This year, the projects up for ridicule include research that involves putting shrimp on treadmills and designing a robot that can fold laundry.
As Greenfieldboyce has noted and Paul Raeburn of Knight Science Journalism Tracker has stated even more bluntly, criticisms by Coburn and others of government-funded research have vastly overstated the amounts spent on the actual items that are singled out for mockery. For instance, Greenfieldboyce reports that the half-million-dollar grant College of Charleston researchers received supported work on economically important seafood species, and the shrimp treadmill only accounted for around $1,000 of that.
This kind of misleading math from politicians and advocacy groups is all too common. What’s uniquely disturbing about these kinds of attacks on scientific research, though, is the implication that a wacky-sounding experiments can’t represent an important step toward a discovery that improves millions of lives.
Coburn’s report includes links to NSF abstracts of the research it ridicules, so I checked out a couple of the projects to see what the scientists said about the potential applications of their research:
Shrimp on a treadmill
This project – actual name: “Impaired Metabolism and Performance in Crustaceans Exposed to Bacteria” – studies the extent to which shrimp and crabs’ physical activity is impaired by bacteria and hypoxia (low oxygen). The researchers suspect that “the immune response [to bacteria] may make it more difficult for an organism to respond to hypoxic environments or to engage in significant physical activity,” and to test this they conduct metabolism tests on shrimp and crabs that are resting, exercised, and exposed to hypoxia. How do you get a shrimp “exercised”? On a treadmill, evidently. It sounds funny, but it’s a way to answer the research question.
The researchers are addressing “questions related to the health of economically important species” – and, since human activities contribute to hypoxia in coastal waters, I could see this research helping us make better-informed decisions about the costs and benefits of regulating development and agricultural activities in coastal areas.
Although the Coburn writeup makes it sound like the purpose of this robot is to free us all from laundry drudgery, the abstract for this project – actual name: “Learning for Control of Synthetic and Cyborg Insects in Uncertain Dynamic Environments” – describes very different goals. University of California-Berkeley researchers are developing algorithms that can help robots learn and adapt in complicated environments. When robots have these capabilities, we can use them for search and rescue missions following disasters – which can not only help victims, but reduce the risks to rescuers who’d otherwise be doing that work.
How we ride bikes
This project, at University of California-Davis, is actually called “Human Control of Bicycle Dynamics with Experimental Validation and Implications for Bike Handling and Design.” I’m going to quote from the Coburn report here (citations omitted), because the explanation that its authors seems to think condemns the research actually reads to me like an explanation of why it’s important:
In 2009, scientists at the University of California-Davis received a $300,000 grant to study how humans ride bicycles. [Researchers are] studying how people interact with and control their bicycles … By studying motion capture technology and attaching sensors to riders in labs, the research team plans to develop software and computer models to “pave the way to the design of bicycles for a wider population and for a wider range of tasks…which in turn will lead to lower cost, healthier, and more sustainable modes of personal transportation.”
Currently less than one percent of local trips in the United States are made on a bicycle, but the research team believes that bicycle usage might increase if designers had more insight into their design choices for different populations and different tasks.
I suppose if you don’t see climate change, air pollution, gridlock, and ever-higher gas prices as problems, you might not see the value in helping more people ride bicycles.
So, once again, Senator Coburn paints himself as a prudent steward of taxpayer dollars by ignoring the fact that wacky-sounding experiments can produce important results and lay the groundwork for life-saving innovations. As a taxpayer, I can say that I’m happy to make these investments in research if they lead to better coastal planning, search-and-rescue robots, or reduced transportation pollution. And even if they don’t, they may well serve as building blocks for other scientists’ breakthrough innovations. That’s what science is about – but I suspect Senator Coburn is more interested in scoring political points than improving understanding of the scientific enterprise.