Biologist Lou Burnett was recently in his car when his cell phone rang. It was a CNN reporter, asking about the fact that his research had been featured in a new report about wasteful government spending.
That was news to Burnett, who works at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. "I was pretty irritated," he recalls.
The report, put out by Republican senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma, blasted the National Science Foundation, a major government funder of research, saying it squandered taxpayer money on questionable science projects, including one pursued by Burnett and his colleagues that involved putting shrimp on a tiny treadmill.
Lawmakers and political groups like to point to government spending that seems wasteful — especially in tough economic times. And one popular target has been scientific studies that either sound silly, or involve foreign countries or have to do with sex.
Looking at past examples, however, shows that there seems to be a pattern to how research gets singled out — and what happens after it's put under the spotlight.
Take the case of the "shrimp on a treadmill." Burnett says the senator's report linked that work to a half-million dollar research grant. But that money actually went to a lot of different research that he and his colleagues did on this economically important seafood species.
The treadmills were just a small part of it, a way to measure how shrimp respond to changes in water quality. Burnett says the first treadmill was built by a colleague from scraps and was basically free, and the second was fancier and cost about $1,000. The senator's report was misleading, says Burnett, "and it suggests that much money was spent on seeing how long a shrimp can run on a treadmill, which was totally out of context."
Senator Coburn's spokesperson, John Hart, said in an email that "our report never claimed all the money was spent on shrimp on a treadmill. The scientists doth protest too much. Receiving federal funds is a privilege, not a right. If they don't want their funding scrutinized, don't ask."
Meanwhile, Burnett says "shrimp on a treadmill" is fast becoming a shorthand for government waste. It's been featured by Forbes, an ad from AARP, and a commentary by Mike Huckabee, who said, "I don't care what shrimps do on a treadmill. I don't want my shrimp going to the gym."
Criticizing Government-Funded Studies
Just a couple of months later came another example of an odd-sounding scientific study being linked to a big wad of cash.
"They tried to say that about $9.4 million tax dollars was spent to study men's penis size," says Jeffrey Parsons of Hunter College in New York, referring to a study that was recently criticized by a group called the Traditional Values Coalition.
Parsons and his colleagues did publish a study on men's penis sizes and its link to the risk of sexually transmitted disease — but Parsons says no tax dollars were used to collect the data.
In reality, he says, those millions of dollars went to a government program to train scientists, and that program gave a small educational grant to a researcher who happened to write the paper.
"And because he credited that funding on the final publication, the Traditional Values Coalition assumed then that all of the funding for that postdoctoral program must have been used to pay for this penis size study," says Parsons.
Andrea Lafferty, president of the Traditional Values Coalition, says that "what we said was that there was an allocation of money that went and we said a part of it was used to do this study. We stand by that. They are trying to change the subject. The people that did the study have defended it. They feel it's appropriate to spend taxpayer dollars studying the size of male anatomy. We believe America is broke. People are losing their jobs. They're losing their homes. And this is not an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars."
Her group has also criticized other government-funded studies, including a National Institutes of Health grant for measuring nicotine exposure in toenail clippings. "They used recovery money, money that was meant to more or less stimulate the economy," says Lafferty. "Interesting use of money, mailing in toenail clippings."
That use of recovery funds was defended by Lawrence Tabak, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health. And he says the toenail study has an important goal that its critics didn't mention — trying to assess people's risk of lung cancer.
"So what's scientifically sound and indeed cost effective — to collect biospecimens for cancer research — was twisted in what was intended to ridicule an important life-saving research effort," says Tabak.
He points out that the National Institutes of Health reviews research extensively before it's funded. And he couldn't think of anything that's ever been de-funded because of outside criticism from politicians or political groups.
"I don't notice that anything has happened to budgets or that the agencies have fallen to their knees and said, 'please forgive us, we think it's terrible,'" says Daniel Greenberg, a journalist who has covered the politics of science for decades. He says ridiculing studies can produces headlines, but not much else.
Still, the attacks do worry officials at science agencies.
"It does reinforce the sense of danger within the scientific community," says Greenberg. "Because they are so dependent on federal money."
The fear of repercussions can also affect individual scientists. In 2003, a lawmaker tried to stop some government-funded sexual health research. A number of scientists had their work reviewed as a result. A survey later found that over half reported feeling nervous or paranoid.
People started to be very careful when they wrote grant proposals, recalls Parsons. "A lot of code words started to get used. We would talk about 'highly vulnerable youth' as a euphemism for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered youth."
And the National Institutes of Health started requiring grants to include "a public health relevance statement" — a clear statement of the work's benefits.
Improving public health is why Parsons says he'll continue to study sexual behavior no matter what. But others may get intimidated. "And so I worry about how this type of thing affects people's desire to pursue this line of research as a career," says Parsons.
One scientist says public ridicule never hurt his career.
Robert Kraut, at Carnegie Mellon University, did a study on why bowlers smile — and it's now considered ground-breaking research into how people communicate. But in 1980, it got a Golden Fleece Award for wasting tax dollars from the late democratic Senator William Proxmire.
Kraut thinks scientists will always have to deal with this kind of thing. "Much of the policy debate in Washington, it's all about appearances," he says. "And it's easy in sound bites to ridicule without presenting a full story."
He recently was attending a conference with some colleagues when they learned they'd been singled out by Senator Coburn's report. Kraut tried to reassure them that there'd be no serious consequences — and, after all, it's nothing new.