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Monday, August 09, 2010

The scientists just don't get it

Our local paper had a story based off of the list of wasteful spending put out last week by Senators McCain and Coburn. The reporter visited local scientists who were conducting some of the research ridiculed by the two senators. And the scientists are shocked, shocked that anyone would find their research a waste of money.
he local projects received between $144,541 and $770,856 in stimulus funds for research on monkeys taking cocaine, post-menopausal women practicing yoga and elderly people playing computer games, among others.

Many of these studies were selected for federal grants for peer-reviewed research in a competitive application process. The professional honor the professors experienced contrasts sharply with the scorn their work has received from a pair of senators.

"Total shock," was the reaction of Anne McLaughlin, an assistant professor of psychology at N.C. State University who is overseeing a four-year study on the benefits of video games for the elderly. "Me? Really? Nationally? I mean, who doesn't want to help older adults maintain their independence?"

The purpose of the N.C. State video-gaming study is to collect data that will lead to the development of games designed to improve memory and mental functioning in elderly adults. By the time it's over in 2013, the study will have tested 160 people on the Nintendo Wii Boom Blox, each playing 1 hour a day for 15 days while they're hooked up to skin sensors that measure perspiration.

Each participant takes a 2-1/2-hour test on cognitive ability before and after playing the video games. All 50 participants tested so far are in Raleigh.

McLaughlin said video simulations are used by pilots, soldiers and others for advanced training, and similar technologies can be developed for the benefit of ordinary civilians. The stimulus grant pays for part of her salary, part of a colleague's salary, two full-time graduate students and three research assistants, she said.

"The way that grants work is they support the university," McLaughlin said. "There's no way a university could survive just on tuition."

Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem got the dubious honor of three citations on the list. The university is using a $144,541 grant to test the effect of cocaine on monkeys, a $294,958 grant to measure the benefits of yoga to control hot flashes in post-menopausal women, and a $266,505 grant to put on science education workshops for journalists.

Crazed monkeys?

The senators' report derided the simian subjects of the cocaine study as "drug-crazed monkeys."

University spokeswoman Bonnie Davis demurred: "This is good science and good research that helps millions of people," she said.

NCSU's Insect Museum received $253,123 to buy new bug-storage cabinets and to create an outreach program. The museum is open to the public by appointment only and gets as few as several dozen visitors some years. It is home to about 1.5 million bugs (all dead), specializing in cicadas, leaf hoppers, tree hoppers and aphids.

The senators' report noted mockingly that the museum features an annual Hexapod Haiku Challenge and plans to use some of the stimulus money to develop insect trading cards modeled on baseball cards.

The money paid for four students or recent grads to maintain the museum's database and one graduate student a semester for four semesters to study curation and other topics, museum director and entomology professor Andy Deans said.
Thee may be perfectly worthwhile research projects. Leave aside whether the federal government should be funding such studies in the first place. The real question is whether these projects were good targets for stimulating jobs. Of course they weren't. If they worthwhile they should have been funded out of regular funding for scientific grants. But there is no way that these projects belonged in a emergency stimulus that was supposed to fund jobs. They have nothing to do with jobs regardless of the graduate students who got some money out of them. The stimulus was sold to us as the plan that would provide jobs. But it never had anything to do with jobs. It was just to shovel out a whole bunch of money to a variety of projects sitting out there that hadn't been funded through the regular budgetary process. If someone got a job out of these projects, it was pure happenstance.

That's why the stimulus didn't work to provide jobs. It was never designed to provide jobs no matter how much money went to graduate students or professors studying video games for the elderly. Yes, perhaps we would like to know whether playing video games will help the elderly, but there are lots of things we'd like to know. When will people learn that the federal money bags aren't unlimited and sometimes it won't be able to fund something that sounds perfectly reasonable in a grant proposal. Remember that everyone's project sounds reasonable. That's why we get into funding holes in the first place.


tfhr said...

"...test the effect of cocaine on monkeys, a $294,958 grant to measure the benefits of yoga to control hot flashes in post-menopausal women,...."

If we can just get Pelosi into a yoga class, we can substitute the rest of Congress in place of the monkeys. Look how much money I just saved! And that doesn't include the cost of monkey chow.

Bachbone said...

"There's no way a university could survive just on tuition."

Oh, my. Dr. McLaughlin really ought to climb down from her ivory tower just once. She'd find Hillsdale College and Grove City College. Neither takes a cent of federal funds. They avoid being told by the feds what they can and cannot do. Both accept private contributions/donations to help deserving students. As the saying goes, "Where there's a will, there's a way." If Dr. McLaughlin took off her $$$ blinders, she might find private funds.

Karl said...

This does sound bad, but I have to wonder how much of the money goes to "overhead". In the case of the monkeys, for example, I have no idea what they have in the way of animal models for cocaine addiction. If we want to treat cocaine addiction in people, it would be a good idea to know how the drug actually works.

Maybe this has all been done before, and maybe that's paying for students to learn scientific techniques while replicating something that might be useful if it proves out. In any event, the university gets a cut of the money for facilities, maintenance, rental of space, salary and wages for staff, and so on.

It would be very useful if research teams had someone on board who was good at explaining the whys and wherefores of the research.

Or maybe the $266K spent on science education workshops for journalists will teach them to ask the right questions when confronted with outrageous sounding stories like this one.