Menus Subscribe Search

Your Pork Is Actually My Policy

• August 05, 2010 • 5:13 PM

John McCain and Tom Coburn’s snarky listing of reputedly dumb stimulus projects manages to ‘misunderestimate’ some important research.

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.

(Those monkeys, for instance, are not just getting high for science, but to better inform our understanding of human addiction to cocaine.)

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 name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]

[/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.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.