Over the last five years, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has published an annual Wastebook, documenting what he considers the 100 most wasteful federal projects. This year he got a lot of media mileage by ridiculing several science grants—which, in fact, were among the cheapest and most worthwhile projects on his hit list.

Coburn and his staff spend time every year ferreting out which research projects will sound the most ludicrous. Their descriptions include enough accurate information so that they can't be characterized as lies.

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But they leave out so many facts that they can't be characterized as truth, either.

Nonetheless, media outlets got a good laugh by parroting the talking points, without putting any effort into looking at whether any of these projects were more than they seemed. Coburn's Wastebook often didn't provide any specific critiques, beyond bad puns about government waste.

Normally, I'd shrug it off as just more spin. But, the Wastebook got a lot of publicity at a time when Congressional Republicans have made science grants the scapegoats for out-of-control government spending—when, in fact, they represent barely a fraction of the billions of dollars spent on projects that actually need oversight.

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So, here are some fixes in the Wastebook, by providing actual information on three of the science grants that got a lot of attention.

"Scientists Hope Gambling Monkeys Unlock Secrets of Free Will" ($171,000)

Actual name of study: "Flexible control of reward based decisions"

How the Wastebook describes it:

It turns out humans are not the only species looking for "Big money, no whammies!" Monkeys also like to play video games and gamble, found an ongoing study supported by the National Science Foundation.

Based upon the monkeys' behavior, the researchers concluded monkeys share "our unfounded belief in winning and losing streaks."

"Win-stay strategies appear to be more natural for monkeys than win-shift ones," details the study.

The researchers contend the study could "provide nuance to our understanding of free will" or even "inform treatment for gambling addiction." But taxpayers are likely to go totally bananas that NSF is monkeying around with federal research dollars.

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Facts that were omitted:

The NSF funding is part of an ongoing, multi-year study to better understand how the part of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) regulates decision-making.

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The researchers explain that anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) region of the brain is "implicated in several psychiatric problems that are debilitating both to patient standard-of-life and to worldwide medical expenditure and economic productivity. Notably, these include long-term depression, anxiety disorder, OCD, schizophrenia amongst many others. Therefore, progress in understanding the computations performed by the ACC to control our behavior is essential.

What the NSF study actually did:

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Humans have a well-documented tendency to see winning and losing streaks in situations that, in fact, are random. But scientists disagree about whether the "hot-hand bias" is a cultural artifact picked up in childhood or a predisposition deeply ingrained in the structure of our cognitive architecture.

This is the first study that used primates to examine this systematic error in decision-making. To measure whether rhesus monkeys actually believe in winning streaks, the researchers had to create a computerized game that was so captivating monkeys would want to play for hours.

What the research revealed:

  • The results of this research suggest that the penchant to see patterns that actually don't exist may be inherited—an evolutionary adaptation that may have provided our ancestors a selective advantage when foraging for food in the wild, according to lead researcher Tommy Blanchard, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.
  • The cognitive bias may be difficult to override even in situations that are truly random. This inborn tendency to feel that we are on a roll or in a slump may help explain why gambling can be so alluring and why the stock market is so prone to wild swings, said coauthor Benjamin Hayden, assistant professor brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.
  • So why do monkeys and humans share this false belief in a run of luck even when faced over and over with evidence that the results are random? Blanchard and Hayden speculate that the distribution of food in the wild, which is not random, may be the culprit. "If you find a nice juicy beetle on the underside of a log, this is pretty good evidence that there might be a beetle in a similar location nearby, because beetles, like most food sources, tend to live near each other," explained Hayden.
  • Evolution has also primed our brains to look for patterns, added Hayden. "We have this incredible drive to see patterns in the world, and we also have this incredible drive to learn. I think it's very related to why we like music, and why we like to do crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and things like that. If there's a pattern there, we're on top of it. And if there may or may not be a pattern there, that's even more interesting."

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"Watching Grass Grow" ($10,000)

Actual Name of Study: "GTM Research Reserve Mission"

How the Wastebook describes it:

The federal government is literally paying people to watch grass grow.

The Department of Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is spending $10,000 on the project being conducted in the Guana Tolomato Matanzas preserve by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). The money will "cover the cost to monitor grasses, restore two acres as a demonstration and publish a guide on best practices for cultivating the cordgrass, known formally as Spartina alterniflora."

While the project may yield some new understandings of how to grow cordgrass, it looks more like just another weed of government waste in the federal budget. There are much more pressing challenges facing our nation that we should focus on than watching grass grow.

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Facts that were omitted: The Guana estuaries, where this research is taking place, contribute $246 million per year to the region's economy, through functions like controlling erosion, sheltering wildlife, pollinating plants and cleaning and controlling water that flows through the area's waterways.

What the study is actually about:

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With help from high school- and college-age volunteers, about 40,000 plugs of Spartina grass (also known as smooth cordgrass) will be pulled individually from the marsh and replanted in areas where boat wakes, waves from storms or other problems have eroded shorelines.

As the USDA explains, the plant has several unique properties that make it ideal for land conservation:

When established in conjunction with shorelines, smooth cordgrass provides an effective buffer that dissipates energy, reduces shoreline scouring, and traps suspended sediments and other solids. Dense stands of smooth cordgrass are efficient users of available nutrients, producing significant amounts of organic matter. The cumulative effects of organic matter production, sediment trapping, and erosion control not only provide shoreline protection but also accelerate sediment accumulation and near-shore building. Consequently, smooth cordgrass is a sustainable and renewable restoration resource, and when properly established and in the appropriate habitat, will persist and potentially remain effective indefinitely.

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However, the cordgrass is also the foundation for a whole web of marsh life that brings both work and play to the region. The marsh in the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve supports estuaries used by commercially important types of shrimp, grouper, seabass, snapper and flounder, as well as sport fish such as snook, drum, tarpon and pompano.

Animals from inch-long periwinkle snails to 1,000-pound manatees feed around the marsh, where tiny fish and crabs navigate near clumps of cordgrass that anchor waterlogged muck.

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The cordgrass roots also stabilize the muck enough for it to become rich soil where plants like saltwort and black needlerush sprout and clapper rails, saltmarsh sparrows and moorhens peck for meals.

What's more, the area's marshes act like sponges during rainy seasons, holding in water while some developed areas flood, and become a buffer when storms crash in from the ocean.

The researchers are studying how long it takes cordgrass to replenish itself at "donor sites" where the plant been removed and transplanted to coastal areas. That information will allow them to determine best practices for harvesting the plant, so that it doesn't damage the valuable marshlands.

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"Mountain Lions on a Treadmill" ($856,000)

Actual Name of Study: "A New Instrument Package for Integrating Behavior, Physiology and Ecology of Wild Mammals"

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How the Wastebook describes it:

In this study funded with an $856,000 NSF grant, three captive mountain lions were taught to use a treadmill. It took eight months of training before the cats were "comfortable on the treadmill."

Before the researchers "could interpret the data from collars deployed on wild mountain lions, however, they first had to perform calibration studies with mountain lions in captivity.

The researchers say the "insights are likely to greatly inform public knowledge and opinion of large mammal behavior and conservation."

While support for basic science is not itself wasteful, federal research agencies should better prioritize how tax dollars are directed to ensure adequate support for more pressing scientific endeavors.

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Facts that were omitted:

This was a four-year research grant that is part of a larger initiative, begun in 2008, called the Santa Cruz Puma Project—a conservation project that is a partnership between UC Santa Cruz and the California Department of Fish and Game. Additional funding has come from several sources, including the American Museum of Natural History.'

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What the study was actually about:

The research team was led by Terrie Williams, a noted professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. They developed a new "SMART" (species movement, acceleration and radio tracking) collar—equipped with GPS, accelerometers, and other high-tech features—which tells researchers not just where an animal is but what it is doing and how much its activities "cost" in terms of energy expenditure:

Knowing mountain lion energetics (or any other big predator's energetics) is important because it helps scientists see how many calories a population needs to survive and ensure future generations, which in turn helps conservationists and ecologists make wildlife management and planning decisions. "If you want to have big, charismatic predators around, you better know what they need to eat," Williams says. "If you don't pay attention to that, you start to see more and more human/animal conflict."

In humans, scientists measure energetics by putting people on treadmills with special instruments that measure how many calories they expend, so Williams would have to do the same thing with mountain lions—not just get them on treadmills, but also outfit them with the team's custom-built collars….which "allowed us to calibrate the collar both for behavior and energetics," Williams says.

From collaring the captive cats and making them walk on treadmills, as well as videotaping their behavior in their enclosures, Williams and her colleagues were able to learn how many calories the cats expended for every step they took, whether they were going uphill, downhill, resting, hunting, eating, or drinking—basically, any behavior you can think of….That gave them a base that they could apply to the five wild mountain lions they collared and tracked.

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What the study revealed:

  • The researchers have developed a platform that enables them not only to examine, but to predict wildlife behavior. "We want to get to a stage where we can say, 'We've got a lion that, for whatever reason, is really hungry out there and chances are you should put your dog indoors and shouldn't go hiking in this area' — that there's a higher likelihood that this animal is going to go after something," Williams told the New York Times.
  • The research team's initial findings, recently published in the journal Science, help explain why most cats use a "stalk and pounce" hunting strategy. During the actual pounce and kill, the cats invest a lot of energy in a short time to overpower their prey. Data from the collars showed that mountain lions adjust the amount of energy they put into the initial pounce to account for the size of their prey. "They know how big a pounce they need to bring down prey that are much bigger than themselves, like a full-grown buck, and they'll use a much smaller pounce for a fawn," Williams said.
  • Williams and her students also have projects using the new collar technology to study other large carnivores, including wolves, polar bears and Weddell seals. "A lot of these large carnivore species are threatened or endangered, and understanding their physiological limitations has been a big missing piece in conservation planning," Williams said. "This technology gives us a whole new level understanding of what these animals are doing and what it costs them to live in the wild, and that can really help move the science of conservation forward."

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Final tally:

  • New insights into human evolution
  • Research that could contribute to treating mental illness
  • Protecting coastlines and marshes that contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the Florida economy
  • A new technology that will contribute crucial information toward the conservation of several endangered species

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I wish that all government waste were this valuable.