August 25, 2011 Liz Borkowski 23Comment

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.

Laundry-folding robot
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.

23 thoughts on “Shrimp on treadmills, laundry-folding robots, and the problem of ridiculing research

  1. Aside from the development of general algorithms from the “laundry-folding robot”, even that specific task can be much more worthwhile if you think of what it could do for stroke victims, paraplegics & quadriplegics, and the like. Why does Tom Coburn hate the disabled & elderly?

    I can just imagine these guys in times past:
    “You want to do what under the University of Chicago bleachers? What’s the point?”
    “Go fly a kite!” (to Benjamin Franklin, obviously)

  2. @Anne – Make sure you write him and let him know how disappointed in him you are. Most of the rest of us can’t do more than roll our eyes, you might be able to show him that it’s not worth it for him to carry on with this ridicule.

  3. Tasha, I knew I’d seen the robot video but couldn’t remember where – probably because Revere linked to it! Thanks!

    Randy, I agree that even if all the robot did was fold laundry, that would still be pretty useful, especially to people with limited mobility.

    Anne, I agree with Adam – write to your senator!

  4. Hell, I’d be pleased with a robot that can actually fold laundry! It’d be the few uses of my tax dollars that doesn’t make me want to scream or hit something.

  5. This type of science non-understanding reminds me of a certain vice-presidential candidate criticizing fruit-fly research. Some heartless people are this “ignorant” on purpose, some headless people are this ignorant by accident?

  6. No love for Coburn here. However, there have been plenty of experiments and studies looking at the bicycle over the years (and plenty of manufacturers trying to differentiate their products). I’m skeptical that another look at the vehicle is all that valuable. The types of studies I applaud all have to do with some aspect of this broad question: How can the existing infrastructure be modified to better support bicycle transportation? To use an analogy, we don’t have a problem with the lightbulb, but we have some serious problems with wiring.

  7. Scary thing is… I suspect Coburn’s still not as bad as OK’s other senator, Sen. Inhofe. (Disclaimer: my knowledge of OK’s senators might be out of date, but those were the two last I heard of.)

  8. Sam, that’s a really odd analogy — because we have enormous problems with lightbulbs! We really need better ones, and there are some promising new possibilities, even though people have been working on them since Edison burnt his hair!

    I saw some of the Davis groups’ bikes and posters at MakerFair this year, and they were pretty clear about what reasearch has been done and what they think is open. It really didn’t seem like a solved problem to me — commercially, most of the motives are for either very cheap and familar bikes, or very fast bikes that experts ride. Bikes that are easier and more efficient for everyday people would be a great boon. Just proving that the hundred-year-old diamond frame is an optimum would be impressive.

  9. Coburn’s idiotic brand of science-bashing goes back all the way to the beginning of the country. There always have been and always will be politicians like Coburn who pander to the dumbest, most selfish and ignorant inhabitants of their constituencies. Relax and enjoy it, because it will never, ever go away. At least until every American “is above average” as in Lake Woebegone.

  10. Reminds me of Senator William Proxmire’s Golden-Fleece awards. About some university’s experiments with a walking robot, he snickered about how that robot will do wonders for that university’s football team.

    I think that William Proxmire and Tom Coburn would have hated some of the great scientific work of the past, if they had been around back then.

    Making a ball of lodestone? Cross-breeding pea plants and fruit flies? Flying a kite in a thunderstorm? Working out lots of arcane mathematics that hardly anyone understands???

  11. We’re doing ourselves a disservice by conflating scientific progress with public policy. In the end, the politicization of science only benefits politicians. If we don’t want politicians criticising our research, we shouldn’t involve them in our work. As we so sanctimoniously point out, they’re not even capable of understanding it. Why, then, do we continue to associate with government bureaucrats?

  12. Rick: Because research, unfortunately, requires money, and if I have to choose between a government bureaucracy preoccupied with satisfying the general public and a corporate bureaucracy preoccupied with satisfying wealthy investors, I’d say general science has much better chances depending on government bureaucracy. Yes, work gets done under corporate funding, but corporate funding to a large degree comes with corporate interests. If those shrimp studies depended on the fishing industry for funding, for example, I’m not sure how reliable their results would be. Other than making research university tuition prohibitively expensive, I’m not sure where else the money would come from.

  13. Sam, that’s a really odd analogy — because we have enormous problems with lightbulbs! We really need better ones, and there are some promising new possibilities, even though people have been

  14. There used to be a verb (to proxmire) meaning to threaten the funding of a project for political reasons by subjecting it to mindless ridicule of this sort.

  15. This is a driving force behind one of my pet peeves about Science _reporting_: the ridiculous apologetic that is apparently mandated by editors that the Science must somehow be linked to Engineering. Every report must end in one of these statements: “This research may soon lead to {a cure for cancer, a cure for disease, painless weight-loss, saving energy, making computers faster, more television channels, better smartphones, cheaper gasoline, a jacuzzi in every house}. It’s an unimaginative, depauperate list that implicitly denigrates pure science, and, often, sticking-on the mandatory disclaimer “this will have short-term easy-to-understand benefits, really” is just silly.

  16. I would buy a laundry-folding robot even if I weren’t disabled.. who wants to fold laundry? Sounds great to me!
    I wonder if ben franklin was ridiculed for his far-fetched key on a kite string experiment!

  17. Politicians ridiculing science is not a new thing. As Loren pointed out above, remember the “Golden Fleece Awards” by Senator William Proxmire, which among other things, targeted SETI. I think that in most cases, the motivation behind this is not science or even public welfare; rather it is about publicity.

    I know I am preaching to the choir in this thread, but the thing is that in a very real sense, you NEVER know the possible consequences of research. My current favorite example are the conotoxins. Who would have imagined that by studying marine snails you cound end up with a medication that helps alleviate pain in cancer patients?

    @sam f: i absolutely agree with your Ben Franklin comment!!!!

  18. I was originally going to write about an amazing article that appeared in the NEJM today, but then, as happens all too often, something more compelling caught my eye. Unfortunately, it’s compelling in exactly the wrong way. It’s infuriating and saddening, all at the same time

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