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'Shrimp On A Treadmill': The Politics Of 'Silly' Studies

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'Shrimp On A Treadmill': The Politics Of 'Silly' Studies


'Shrimp On A Treadmill': The Politics Of 'Silly' Studies

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Lawmakers and political groups often decry what they say is wasteful government spending. And one popular target: scientific studies.

Ms. SARAH PALIN: Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man #1: Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana...

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): And $140 million for something called volcano monitoring.

MONTAGNE: That was Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, an ad for Senator John McCain and Sarah Palin.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce looks into what studies get singled out and how that affects science.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: ABC's "Good Morning America" recently covered a report from Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Good Morning America")

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): The new report on how your tax dollars are being spent, it's going to be released later today...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It blasted the National Science Foundation, a major government funder of research, saying it wasted money on projects like this.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man #2: Researchers figured out how to put shrimp on a treadmill, and to get more than $500,000 in the process. Look at them go!

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Who studies shrimp on a treadmill? Biologist Lou Burnett. He learned about the senator's report when CNN called him.

Mr. LOU BURNETT (Biologist): I was pretty irritated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the half a million dollars was actually for a lot of different research 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 senator's report was misleading.

Mr. BURNETT: It suggests that much money was spent on seeing how long a shrimp can run on a treadmill, which was totally out of context.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Senator Coburn's spokesperson is John Hart. In an email, Hart said: 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, shrimp on a treadmill is becoming a shorthand for government waste. It's been featured by Forbes, in an ad from AARP, and a Mike Huckabee commentary.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Politician): You know what? I don't care what shrimps do on a treadmill. I don't want my shrimp going to the gym.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This kind of public mockery of scientific studies seems to have a treadmill quality of its own. It follows a pattern that's repeated over and over for decades. Here's how it goes: Find studies that either sound silly or involve foreign countries or have to do with sex. Then link that research to a big wad of government cash. Take this example from last month.

Mr. JEFFREY PARSONS (Hunter College): They tried to say that about 9.4 million tax dollars was spent to study men's penis size.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Jeffrey Parsons of Hunter College in New York. He's referring to a study that was criticized by a group called the Traditional Values Coalition. Parsons says he and his colleagues did publish a study on men's penis sizes and its link to the risk of sexually transmitted disease, but no tax dollars were used to collect the data. In reality, those millions of dollars went to a government program to train scientists. That program gave a small educational grant to a researcher who happened to write the paper.

Mr. PARSONS: 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I called Andrea Lafferty, president of the Traditional Values Coalition, and asked her if she thought putting $9.4 million in association with that study is accurate.

Ms. ANDREA LAFFERTY (President, Traditional Value Coalition): 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her group has also criticized other government-funded studies, including a National Institutes of Health grant for measuring nicotine exposure in toenail clippings.

Ms. LAFFERTY: They used recovery money, money that was meant to more or less stimulate the economy - interesting use of money, mailing in toenail clippings.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The deputy director of the National Institutes of Health is Lawrence Tabak. He defended the use of recovery funds. 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.

Mr. LAWRENCE TABAK (Deputy Director, National Institutes of Health): 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 lifesaving research effort.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Tabak says the NIH reviews research extensively before it's funded. He couldn't think of anything that's ever been defunded because of outside criticism from politicians or political groups.

Daniel Greenberg is a journalist who's covered the politics of science for decades. He says ridiculing studies can produces headlines, but not much else.

Mr. DANIEL GREENBERG (Journalist): I don't notice that, you know, anything has happened to budgets or that the agencies have, you know, fallen to their knees and said, you know, please forgive us. We think it's terrible.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, the attacks do worry officials at those science agencies.

Mr. GREENBERG: It does reinforce the sense of danger within the scientific community, because they are so dependent on federal money.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: 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. Jeff Parsons says people started to be very careful when they wrote grant proposals.

Mr. 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: 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 he says others may get intimidated.

Mr. PARSONS: And so I worry about how this type of thing affects people's desire to pursue this line of research as a career.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One scientist says public ridicule never hurt his career. Robert Kraut is at Carnegie Mellon University. He did a study on why bowlers smile. 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.

Mr. ROBERT KRAUT (Scientist, Carnegie Mellon University): Much of the policy debate in Washington, it's all about appearances. And it's easy in soundbites to ridicule without presenting a full story.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kraut recently was at a conference with some colleagues when they learned they'd been singled out by Senator Coburn's report. Kraut tried to reassure them there'd be no serious consequences, and it's nothing new.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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