Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn released a snarky report this week targeting 100 projects funded by the Recovery Act that they say have done little to create jobs while wasting a lot of federal money.
Not surprisingly, about a quarter of the programs cited are federally funded scientific research, reprising a favorite McCain campaign theme from the 2008 presidential election. Then, he had it out for grizzly bear DNA. Now, it's "monkeys getting high for science."
Unfortunately for the scientists involved, much is lost in translation from peer-reviewed grant proposals to McCain and Coburn's "Summertime Blues" exposé.
Particularly susceptible to political potshots are the projects that require an extra cognitive step from academic lab to real-world application: the research that suggests we can learn more about local ecosystems by studying others around the globe, that we can learn more about Earth's climate by studying climates on other planets, or that we can learn more about our own health as humans by studying the lives of other animals.
McCain, though, is pretty merciless with his broad brush.
"Of course, some are more egregious than others," he told ABC News, "but all of them are terrible."
Sure, some obscure studies may be a hefty lift to justify, but they can't all be terrible. We plucked out a few that look quite the opposite and invited the researchers behind them to explain the value McCain and Coburn didn't see.
"It is so important for the people who paid for the stimulus to understand what they are buying," said researcher Mark Bullock, who was eager for the opportunity. "I believe this is true beyond the stimulus — if a scientist can't explain why his or her publicly funded work is important to society, I don't think it is worth doing."
[/class] 1. Bullock, who works at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., received a $298,543 National Science Foundation grant to study the atmosphere on Venus, which could help us better understand our own. On Earth, heat is transported to the poles either through the atmosphere, or by the ocean. Because Venus has no oceans, scientists can study atmospheric processes in isolation. "For a long time, we didn't really understand how much of the heat [on Earth], which is really what drives climate, was transported by oceans, and how much was transported by the atmosphere," Bullock said. "It's still not perfectly well understood."
He recalls an earlier Venus-related scientific breakthrough. Scientists in the 1970s studying chlorine in Venus' atmosphere helped ground research on Earth into the role of chlorine in chlorofluorocarbons that were later discovered to be destroying the ozone. The end result, Bullock points out, was the Montreal Protocol banning CFCs.
2. The California Academy of Sciences received $1.9 million to study thousands of species of ants in the "biodiversity hotspot" of the Southwest Indian Ocean islands and East Africa. Entomologists say the insect offers a unique window into how to counter the planet's habitat and biodiversity loss. "Because ant species often have limited ranges and develop unique symbiotic relationships with other species in their ecosystems, they are a valuable group to study when deciding where to establish nature reserves," a spokeswoman for the academy explained by e-mail.
Leaf cutter ants also cultivate the Steptomyces bacterium, which is the source of about half of the antibiotics produced by pharmaceutical companies. "Scientists are currently working to determine how the ants keep their antibiotics viable for thousands of years," the spokeswoman added, "while the man-made versions only remain effective for a few generations."
3. Researchers at San Diego State University received $497,117 from the National Institutes of Health to research whether alcohol labeling on restaurant and bar menus could help drinkers control their consumption — and in turn cut down on drunken-driving fatalities. Strategies such as the 21-year-old drinking age and "designated driver" campaigns have reduced deaths by drunken driving in the U.S. But progress has leveled off, said researcher James Lange, leaving policymakers in search of new solutions.
Alcohol content information listed on bottles doesn't help people who have their drinks poured for them at a bar. So some have suggested menu labeling similar to the type of nutritional information fast-food restaurants will be required to post by the new health care law. "While it may appear to be a simple solution, there are serious questions that remain about how to implement it, and even whether it would in fact exacerbate the problem," Lange wrote in an e-mail. "By conducting a rigorously designed experimental study, we are hoping to answer those questions, and inform policymakers on this issue."
4. Researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago are eyeing another public health problem: obesity. While the federal government tries out new menu labeling, these researchers will study a more controversial tactic, sales taxes on products high in sugar or fat. The idea has been floated or implemented in several cities and states, but actual data on whether it works is scarce.
Existing research has linked the price of food with the health of its consumers. But food and beverage taxes specifically have never been isolated before. The researchers will investigate the taxes' effect on consumption behavior, diet quality, BMI indexes and obesity, with additional analysis of low-income groups, food stamp recipients and children. The university was awarded an NIH grant of $521,005.
5. Scientists at the University of Missouri have been awarded $362,860 over two years to find a better way to cryogenically preserve the genetic stocks of rats often used to study human diseases (or, in McCain-Coburn speak, "to freeze rat sperm"). "Collection of epididymal sperm is the simplest and most cost-effective method of archiving genetics for future use," the researchers explain in their Health and Human Services grant proposal. Currently, there's only one way to do this, and it only works about 10 percent of the time.
As a result, the researchers say there's an urgent need to improve the process to the benefit of the biomedical community. And if the frozen sperm could be reliably used to reconstitute genetically important rat strains, it would also cut down on the need to house so many live animals in laboratories.