Sen. Coburn and GMA attack Science and the NSF

Do any of you guys ever catch Good Morning America on your way out the door?  If you do, then you know that it is a morning “news” show that is light on news and heavy on fluffy crap like last night’s Dancing with the Stars results.  Well, their vapidity was on display again this morning when they reported on and aided Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-Oklahoma) attack on science and the National Science Foundation.

In the piece, the GMA cast highlights three research projects funded by NSF that Coburn believes are examples of wasteful government spending.  They introduce the projects as [1] a shrimp on a treadmill (scroll down for a video), [2] a robot that can fold laundry, and [3] using Farmville on Facebook to study whether it helps build personal relationships.  Beyond this, they never really discuss the results or impacts of the research, but simply provide a short video clip and add a gag-reel complete with pointing clowns and laughter.

GMA also quotes Sen. Coburn. “What it says to me is, they have too much money if they’re going to spend money on things like that.”

This statement and others by the GMA crew are simply wrong and uninformed.  Although it is entertaining and a little silly to create a video of a shimp running on a treadmill, the crew go on to say, “It’s not entirely clear what this research hoped to establish.”  However, a simple google search reveals David Scholnick is responsible for the shrimp research at Pacific University in Oregon.  On his PUO website, Dr. Scholnick clearly states what his research hopes to establish:

Worldwide animals are at an increased risk of opportunistic pathogens. Elevations in temperature and increased areas of low oxygen suggest that pathogen exposure of lower vertebrates and marine invertebrates are escalating.

The central hypothesis underlying my research is that infectious disease can compromise the respiratory systems of lower vertebrates and invertebrates and thereby limit the ability of animals to sustain and recover from normal activities.

These experiments will indicate whether sublethal infection can suppress normal respiratory activity and limit recovery.  The goal of these studies is to better understanding how pathogens can impact respiration and thereby disrupt metabolic pathways during activity.

This is useful work, and not just because it helps us understand how climate change may impact marine animals themselves.  Coming from Louisiana, I know how many people’s lives revolve around fishing for native oysters and shrimp.  It is important to understand how a changing climate will impact the viability of shrimp because it will impact human lives as well.

But besides the inaccuracies and bad reporting, there’s another thing about Coburn and GMA that bothers me: they don’t understand the slow, incremental nature of scientific research.  It is not like CSI or the movies: we don’t shove a piece of DNA into a machine, push one button and find the gene for some disease, then press another button to find the cure.  Because of the rigour and evidence required, the process of scientific discovery can sometimes be painfully slow.  And most research does not result in commercial products or drugs (nor should it).  This is why government funding of research is important, and why Coburn’s attack is so off the mark.  If a private company can’t make a dime off the end-product of scientific research — no matter how useful it may be — then they won’t fund it.  Plus, private funding can introduce biases.  Doesn’t anyone remember how Big Tobacco employed scientists to deny that tobacco was addictive, despite all the evidence to the contrary?  Government funding makes sure that useful research is done, keeps science objective, and helps trains our next generation of thinkers and problem solvers.

So please, write Sen. Coburn and GMA and tell them to do a little more research the next time they want to attack science.  And finally, here’s an entertaining video of a shrimp on a treadmill (soundtracked with The Final Countdown).


6 thoughts on “Sen. Coburn and GMA attack Science and the NSF

  1. Visit my website for a video of an earthworm in a “running” wheel:

    (Unfortunately – no clever soundtrack accompanies my video.)

    Is there a point? Yes, but probably not one that the GMA crew can understand. Ultimately to understand how the earthworm learns will help us understand how we learn. Worms can’t press levers like rats can, but they can locomote, so crawling in the wheel can serve as a response subject to the same principles of learning that govern lever-pressing in rats. The nervous system of the earthworm, readily manipulable, might then reveal mechanisms of learning that complement what has already been learned from studies of other invertebrates and mammals.

    Science is incremental, as koquin suggests. Will my research ever lead to anything really important? I don’t know, but I will never know if I don’t do it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jeff. Nice video. I’m sure we can find someone to add a soundtrack and pop that up on youtube — maybe it will be the next shrimp on a treadmill sensation.

      As far as the incremental nature of research, Coburn complains that only 10% of the proposals that NSF receives are considered “transformative”. But not all research can be transformative right out of the box. In the type of genetic work that I do, it takes years to build up the genetic resources necessary to make that “transformative” leap. NSF and researchers often have to invest significant time and money over a period of years before they are able to make the type of breakthroughs that appear in journals like Science and Nature.

  2. Pingback: Paul Greenberg’s war on science and learning, new installment « arkansasmediawatch

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s