Defending Science in Wastebook 2014

While I agree with Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) that there is an irresponsible lack of accountability amongst the leadership of the U.S. and that government spending requires much more oversight, Coburn goes way too far to single out and discredit scientific studies in his 5th annual Wastebook.

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 2.52.14 PM
Courtesy of Wastebook 2014

Personal politicking has unfortunately superseded the future of our nation.  As the “current congress is on track to be one of the least productive in 60 years”, I can’t help but to wonder how much time Coburn wasted with this book.  Instead of filtering through what must have been thousands (dare I speculate hundreds of thousands?) of spendatures, perhaps he and his team could have done something instead.

“While I have offered hundreds of amendments to stop stupid spending, most have been soundly defeated.”
-Tom Coburn

In his naivete, Coburn singles out these important scientific studies in Wastebook 2014:

“Swedish Massages for Rascally Rabbits” – $387,000

Courtesy of Wastebook 2014
Courtesy of Wastebook 2014

I think the title that Coburn chose for this particular government investment would ‘rub’ most people the wrong way.  However, when one considers the time, money, and resources it would take to do this study with humans (in addition to the need to standardize muscle mass, weight, sex, and workout of each participant), it’s likely just not cost effective.  Rabbits have been used in the laboratory due to their small size, ease of manipulation, and ability to reproduce very quickly (no joke!) for many years.  The purpose of this particular study was to compare massages given to rabbits either immediately after intense exercise or 2 days later.  The scientists measured muscle contraction and blood cell infiltration into the muscle (not currently feasible with humans!) to determine that immediate massage (performed by a mechanical device so as to be similar between all rabbits) improved muscle recovery compared to receiving the massage 2 days later.  Understanding how blood cells attack the muscle during exercise and whether this can be reversed by massage could ultimately lead to improved post-game therapies for athletes in addition to helping recuperation for all those January resolution-induced workouts like those I participate in.

“Mountain Lions on a Treadmill” – $856,000

The goal of the study was to tag and track mountain lions in order to better understand their behavior for the purpose of preserving them in the wild.  But first, in order to calibrate the devices needed to follow the mountain lions, these scientists needed to study their movements in the laboratory–what better way to monitor their gait than on a treadmill?

“Farmers get Grant to Produce “Worm Power” Compost” – $199,000Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 11.16.51 AM

This NY-based company, Worm Power, received 2 small business innovation grants to study and improve the use of worms to digest dairy waste into environmentally and economically viable compost.  As most compost is generated by microorganisms, insects, and worms anyway, understanding how worms contribute to this process is actually vital for the future of agriculture.  The irony here is that the all-organic GMO-phobes that should be backing this type of venture, are the ones squashing it.

“Watching Grass Grow” – $10,000

While even $10,000 sounds like a lot of money to me or you, to perform even the simplest experiment without the need of expensive equipment can cost a lab hundreds to thousands of dollars.  And even a grant close to a million dollars may fuel a lab for just a few years.  Further, these spendatures simply pale in comparison to the $4.2 billion lost through fraudulent tax returns filed by identity thieves or the $19 million spent on “administrative leave” (AKA vacation) for too many federal employees.  But more importantly than the dollar amount spent, consider the long-term ramifications of discrediting science as a whole.  Just because you don’t understand the purpose of the study, does not make it frivolous or wasteful.

“As you read through the entries presented in this report, ask yourself: Is each of these a true national priority or could the money have been better spent on a more urgent need or not spent at all in order to reduce the burden of debt being left to be paid off by our children and grandchildren?”
-Tom Coburn

Everyone should be accountable for their part in our society.  Yes, that includes the scientists awarded government funds to support their studies.  The goals and benefits of such knowledge should be clear before, during, and even after each study is conducted to maximize accountability.  That aside, should every person in the U.S. understand all the details of these highly technical studies?  Isn’t it up to the funding agencies (with their VERY, VERY high bar of fundability because of a long-standing stagnant government budget) to determine this for the average U.S. citizen?

Stop wasting your time discrediting science Wastebook Coburn, or else you might be apt to find yourself in your very own publication.


for more coverage on Wastebook 2014 check these out:
NPR Science Friday podcast

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *