Earlier this year, Sen. Coburn worked to partially defund political science research; political scientists have warned that such efforts damage public debate and are a“remarkable embarrassment for the world’s exemplary democracy.”
Two years ago, the senator criticized experiments that put shrimp on a treadmill. If his staffers had contacted the principal researcher – as journalists eventually did — they would have learned that the experiments measured the impact of water quality on shrimp health. Pretty important to a $10 billion industry.
This time around, they shake their heads in consternation at federal initiatives to “count sheep,” referring to U.S. Geological Survey and other agency unmanned aircraft missions that allow the government to collect information on everything from wildfires to earthquakes in previously inaccessible areas. This data can help legislators and government officials make more informed decisions.
They bristle at a study looking at using human urine as a fertilizer because…it sounds gross? Well, it certainly doesn’t pass the “ick” test, but other research has shown promise in this area. Cutting down on waste treatment is certainly a valid area of research.
And who can resist making fun of research into duck penises? I spoke with evolutionary biologist Patricia Brennan at UMass Amherst, who didn’t know she was on the senator’s list this time around, but thinks she knows why.
“These studies sound funny because they relate to things that people can easily understand,” she told me. “Similar basic research takes place in chemistry and physics, but that’s more difficult to comprehend. This underscores the importance of science education. We need to teach people why basic science is important.”
Brennan has previous experience with attacks on her research, so she took it in stride. But when scientists learn that they are on Senator Coburn’s list, they are generally surprised and alarmed. Taken aback. Apparently, the senator’s office has not bothered to contact the scientist to learn more about his or her research.