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Coburn, Fox News Criticism of Science Funding Is Unfair

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is a medical doctor and notorious budget hawk. (His colleagues call him "Dr. No" because he likes to block legislation.) Annually, he releases a list of what he perceives to be examples of wasteful government spending. In an era where American debt is $16 trillion, the federal government could probably use a few more people like him.

473px-Tom_Coburn_official_portrait_112th_Congress.jpgEven James Bond couldn't defeat this Dr. No. (Photo: Wikimedia/U.S. Senate)

Being a medical doctor, he's obviously an intelligent man who understands the benefits of science. Yet, in his annual list of government waste projects, Coburn often mocks what sounds like ridiculous scientific research.

Now, science is certainly not immune to waste. Some research (often from the social sciences) isn't worth funding. However, just because research sounds funny doesn't mean it is worthless.

A recent story on Fox News's Special Report uncritically repeated Coburn's claims without examining them. (See embedded video clip at the bottom of this post.) So, let's take a closer look at the three "wasteful" research projects that were highlighted by the report.

Fox News first went after:

...a $325,000 grant to build Robosquirrel -- a robotic rodent designed to test the interaction between a live rattlesnake and a robot squirrel.
That is technically true, but it distorts the purpose of the research. The scientists were examining animal behavior and predator-prey relationships, which is a legitimate field of inquiry. They wanted to know how rattlesnakes respond to squirrel tail-waving (called "flagging" behavior). Obviously, this research can't be done with a real squirrel because, as Samuel Kenyon on Science 2.0 asks, "How can you isolate and test individual animal signal

components and the specific responses they elicit?" So they built a robot that looked like a squirrel and tested that on rattlesnakes.

Next on the chopping block:

Although NASA has no plans or budget for manned spaceflight to Mars, the agency spent nearly a million dollars developing the Mars menu -- an effort to come up with a variety of foods that humans could eat if they were on Mars.
This statement is false. NASA absolutely has plans to go to Mars. In August, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that the U.S. would go to Mars in the 2030s with an international team. NASA also plans a pit stop on an asteroid by 2025. Obviously, astronauts will need something to eat other than freeze-dried ice cream.

Finally, Fox News criticized:

...the nearly $700,000 grant for development of a musical about global warming. When it opened in Kansas City, a reviewer said he learned nothing new about the topic, that the songs sounded like 'Wikipedia entries set to music,' and that the performance included flying monkey poop.
Okay, Fox News and Coburn have a point here. That's absurd. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has no business funding musicals, even ones about science. Whichever bureaucrat is responsible for this decision should be reprimanded.

Two lessons should be taken from this. First, just because science sounds silly doesn't mean it is worthless. In fact, often the opposite is the case. Second, while it's fun to complain about politicians who waste our money, it is actually unelected bureaucrats who make most of the decisions. Congress simply grants organizations like the NSF a huge chunk of money, and bureaucrats decide how to dole it out (using a process called "merit review.")

If you don't like how the NSF is spending your money, sadly, there isn't much you (or any politician) can do about it. Hiring and firing bureaucrats is a monumental task in and of itself.

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