It is a long established trick of politicians in opposition to mock research funding as a waste. The latest in this depressingly regular sideshow comes from Tom Coburn, who is weirdly aided by ABC news, labelling his criticisms as “exclusive.”
And yeah, it’s kind of personal for me. Because their first example is... crustacean research. And it’s even kind of related to locomotion, which is what I did my Ph.D. on.
You've probably heard of shrimp on the barbie, but what about shrimp on a treadmill?
The National Science Foundation has, and it spent $500,000 of taxpayer money researching it. It’s not entirely clear what this research hoped to establish, but it’s one of a number of projects cited in a scathing new report from Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, exclusively obtained by ABC News.
“Not entirely clear”? Your interns have let you down, ABC, so let me Google that for you! Shrimp on a treadmill is a full-blown internet meme thanks to a variety of musical remixes of the researcher video.
There were at least 60 of these a few years back; who knows how many there are now.
But what about the science? Is the reason for the research buried behind a paywall in an obscure journal somewhere?
No. In fact, because of the popularity of the shrimp music videos, the research was covered all over the place: in The Telegraph, MSNBC, and Live Science, to name just a few.
The researchers were on the Today Show talking about this, for crying out loud! Do you know how many crustacean researchers get to be on nationally televised morning shows? Not many. These two may be it. (I’m jealous; I would love to have that kind of opportunity.)
Or, for that matter, did anyone think of looking at the NSF’s award page to find what the researchers wanted to accomplish? Because a little search of “shrimp performance” plus the popular press clippings led me straight to this abstract that says exactly what the researchers wanted to achieve.
It is expected that these studies will show that, at least among crustaceans, the immune response itself may make it more difficult for an organism to respond to hypoxic environments or to engage in significant physical activity. While engaged in this research, which addresses questions related to the health of ecologically and economically important species, these investigators will continue to teach, train and publish with students from four primarily undergraduate institutions in the US.
The researchers want to study how sick shrimp are able to move around and do stuff.
So what? We want healthy shrimp so we can eat them. The shrimp fishery is a multi-million dollar industry in the United States alone. This research clearly has implications for the management and health of that fishery, and therefore, the jobs of all those who catch shrimp and prepare shrimp.
The abstract also points out that this research didn’t just pay for the shrimp and the treadmill; it supported undergraduates from four different universities to get them involved in research. It wouldn’t surprise me if a large chunk of that money was to employ students.
This is the second time in recent memory that crustacean research specifically has been selected as a target. Former presidential candidate John McCain made fun of lobster research. It’s weird that they keep picking on research that is easily related to things like fisheries; the NSF funds things that are way more esoteric.
Are you just bitter, ABC, because NBC beat you to the story?
Are you just bitter, Republicans, because the shrimp on a treadmill videos get more YouTube hits than yours do?
Additional, 27 May: The Science policy blog has an analysis of the report.
But the report, The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope, is itself filled with errors and questionable analyses, say science lobbyists.
More additional, 27 May: More scientists defending their research.
Still more additional, 31 May: We have lost.
Update, 30 May 2014: This has apparently appeared in the U.S. House of Representatives again, so I’d like to remind people that the treadmill in question was built from $48 in spare parts.
Why it’s important to study shrimp on a treadmill