26 May 2011

Before you attack science, could you at least learn to use Google?

Here we go again.

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.

External links

Why it’s important to study shrimp on a treadmill


Benjamin said...

Did you know there are schools dedicated to studying cows and corn? Haw Haw! What a waste of taxpayer money! What jerk thought studying farm animals would have any economic benefit?

killing Mother said...

Bravo! Thank you for bringing to light yet another anti-science scam of the GOP and mainstream media. Unfortunately, the atrocities against reason currently being perpetrated by right wingnuts are caught up in a vicious cycle - the public needs a decent science education to be able to discern the unthruths. Meanwhile, education goes downhill fast.

Thanks for your efforts at illumination anyway.

Mary M said...

My first thought was: gee, is it possible that studying locomotion of animals has some use...oh, I don't know, for robots? http://www.physorg.com/news1193.html

Just the other day I was reading about robots that were inspecting the Japanese nuclear reactor. Yeah, that wouldn't be useful at all....

Eliza said...

You are not joking. I cringe every time someone starts talking about research funds because I know that are going to pull examples that they do not understand. And yes, I blame the media for the perception that science is full of wasteful funding. One search on most of these, one discussion with a scientist would be able to give them all the info the journalists would need to (1) explain the significance and (2) question the critic in a meaningful manner.

Colin said...

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.

So why not let the industry pay for it? Why is this a mission for government? Why should taxpayers have to fork over their money? Does every industry deserve government research money?

Thank goodness that at least one US senator is looking out for the taxpayers.

Zen Faulkes said...

Colin: Fair questions. I've said elsewhere that some of the things in the Senator's report are not crazy, and I may write a follow-up post.

I would be absolutely ecstatic if industry funded more research. Unfortunately, there have been many, many cases of industry that has been unable to deal with conflicts of interest with regards to research.

There are very few cases of industry funding "blue sky" research that doesn't have any clear immediate applications. (Bell Labs used to be a notable exception.) Yet many things that we see as improving quality of life were not discovered or invented with an immediate practical aim in mind.

In fact, just this morning, I was watching a nice video clip with Neil de Grasse Tyson making this very point. He used the example that fMRI - a technique that lets a doctor see inside you without cutting you open - came about because of an astrophysicist.

Another example is wifi. The key that makes wifi work was developed by an astronomer in Australia, who was looking for small black holes.

As for why taxpayers should fork over their money, I suspect many taxpayers rather like seeing their taxes put to use funding research. It often generates a good return on investment. For instance, the U.S. government spent $3.8 billion on the human genome project, which generated tens, if not hundreds, of billions back into the economy. Industry was involved in the genome project, too, so it clearly isn't an either / or situation.

Ancient Mariner said...

As a graduate student in the mid 70's, I pursued studies of the ecological physiology of an alpheid shrimp common in sediments of Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, partly supported by an NSF grant. This work was considered by the late Senator William Proxmire as a candidate for the infamous Golden Fleece Award, a fact of which I have been enormously proud ever since. As it turned out, the "insignificant shrimp" is solely responsible for an order of magnitude increase in the productivity of the entire bay ecosystem, and the study was among the first of a wide application of enquiries into sediment bioturbation that have illuminated our understanding of marine benthic ecosystem dynamics. I would have enjoyed talking about it on the Today Show, but it hadn't been invented yet.

Zen Faulkes said...

Realized the link about the return on investment in the human genome in my last post was not working. It was supposed to go here: http://mikethemadbiologist.com/2011/05/19/the_economic_impact_of_genomic/