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Senator Jeff Flake's War on Small Animals and Sound Science

Through his attacks on those government expenditures he deems frivolous, the Arizona senator exposes the counterproductive nature of his own belt-tightening mission.
Senator Jeff Flake speaks to members of the media on January 17th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Senator Jeff Flake speaks to members of the media on January 17th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake (R) presents himself as a crusader for responsible federal spending. To that end, he regularly publishes pun-themed reports such as "wastebook" and "Jurassic Pork," both of which describe federal allocations deemed pointless. Flake's witticisms seem to have caught on. Senator James Langford (R-Oklahoma) started "Federal Fumbles," Dan Coates (R-Indiana) highlights the "Waste of the Week," and Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) now edits "The Waste Report."

But there's one glaring problem with Flake's publishings: Wastebook, a 200-page catalogue of any government spending on science deemed by the senator to be especially egregious, often bases its scorn on oversimplified—and at times mischaracterized—research. What's more, through his attacks on those government expenditures he deems frivolous, Flake in fact succeeds only in exposing the counterproductive nature of his belt-tightening mission.

In 2015, a Duke University biologist named Sheila Patek's work, on a study she was leading on the mantis shrimp's food-gathering ability, was cited in Flake's wastebook. To Flake, a $700,000-plus grant for shrimp research was an irresistible target. "Shrimp Fight Club!," headlined wastebook's entry on the project. In reality, her work had larger implications, particularly for military engineering and future defense systems.

But Patek believed in her research. Angered by Flake's misrepresentation of her work, she traveled to his office in D.C. to explain the relevance of her study. What emerged from that trip was a revealing look at how Flake demeaned a study that could prove quite consequential beyond its immediate findings. "Our research," she said at the time, "has already led to the development of novel engineered materials that resist impact fracture, based directly on mantis shrimp hammers."

Patek not only believed in her research, but also in the colleagues with whom she worked. She emphasized how Flake's mockery harmed them emotionally. She told HuffPost, "this wastebook targeted a short paper that was the first paper in my young graduate student's career. He is from a long line of firefighters. ... There aren't any other scientists in the family. They are very proud of him. He is very civic-minded. And this has been crushing for him."

But Flake, who is in his last few months in office, evidently isn't listening. His most recent wastebook also targeted animal-based research: the insect. Grumbling about "wasteful spending" in the Department of Agriculture, the senator told Roll Call last July, "I hear they've got a program to try to get Americans to enjoy bugs, crickets."

In fact, there is no such program in the Department of Agriculture. Flake was evidently referring to Small Business Innovation Research Grants (SBIR), of which only two insect companies in the last 10 years have received awards (totaling less than $1.5 million—less than 0.1 percent of the SBIR grants). This appropriation, negligible as it was, didn't prevent Flake from proposing an amendment to a recent federal appropriations package to specifically prevent the development of insects as food.

The 2017 wastebook report.

The 2017 wastebook report.

Of course, Flake is overlooking the fact that insect feed could prove crucial to Republicans' most loyal constituency: factory farmers. Ongoing trials have seen insects fed to farm animals, including fish, as a substitute for costly soy- and corn-based feed. So far it appears that farm animals fare very well on insect feed. Noting that, as global demand for meat rises "so does the need for grain and protein feeds," the Food and Agriculture Organization has already promoted insects as a superior source of farm animal feed: healthier, safer for humans, and less water-dependent and greenhouse gas intensive.

The virtues of insects as feed were duly noted last month at the 2018 Eating Insects Athens Conference, hosted by The North American Coalition of Insect Agriculture, at the University of Georgia. With Flake's slanderous insect rhetoric still echoing through the halls of Congress, the conference organizers addressed the House Agriculture Committee with a letter: "As farmers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and small business owners," they wrote, "we encourage Senator Flake to reassess his position on insects as food ingredient and allow us to provide a better understanding of this industry as a whole." One of the letter's authors, Wendy Lu McGill, founder of Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, an insect farm in Denver, elaborated in an email to Pacific Standard:

Senator Flake's attack on federal edible insect research funding is a cynical attempt to single out an industry made up of idealistic, hard-working, and innovative people—including more than 50 percent women-led companies. It seems like it was done to gain political clout without seeking meaningful results. All the same, my and others in my industry's invitations remain open for him to visit our farms and taste delicious, American-raised insects.

Flake has yet to respond to the letter, and, with less than two months left in office, it seems unlikely he ever will.