In his speech at CPAC, almost 13 hours shorter than he is used to delivering, Rand Paul made a number of points about liberty and joked about his past filibuster, whipping out what he claimed were binders with 13 hours’ worth of information.
But then he tried to come after the robot squirrels.
He complained that the sequester has arbitrarily struck down funding for student tours of the White House. Then he mentioned that somehow there was still funding for scientific research that used robot squirrels to test the effect of squirrels’ tail flagging on rattlesnakes. He actually seemed to grasp the substance of the research, joking that a dearth of squirrel volunteers willing to stand in front of rattlesnakes with their tails in varying configurations had forced the researchers to develop a robotic squirrel to take their place. But then he suggested that this was a stupid thing to be doing and that we should bring back the White House tours instead.
Nonsense! Save the Robot Squirrel!
They weren’t the only government science experiments Paul singled out. There’s the Mars Menu — astronauts on manned missions would eat pizza — or the $3 million spent on research into monkeys on meth. (And no surprise, Paul noted, monkeys enjoy meth! Why, he could have told you that and saved the money!) And Paul didn’t even mention the robot bees, fish, lizards, cockroaches, rats, sage grouse, frogs and other organisms that the National Science Foundation cites on its Web site. Robot bees? I might draw the line at a robot Nicolas Cage, but I say bring them on.
Science always looks a little silly, if you’re doing it right. The mathematician Archimedes (allegedly) discovered the law of displacement in his bathtub, noticing how the water level changed when he got in and went streaking through the streets shouting, “I have it!” or “Eureka!” One can imagine that he would have lost his funding pretty quickly. Ben Franklin liked to fly kites in thunderstorms. “Guess what,” Rand Paul might have told him, “lightning is DANGEROUS!” Well, yes, but there’s so much MORE to it than that. And during the long, hard, rewardless scrabble toward more knowledge, more data, more everything, the government can help.
Hard scientific research, like parenthood, is a long slog that offers few immediate rewards. But when rewards come, everyone benefits. And along the way, every additional piece of knowledge forms a scaffolding on which you can build even more exciting things.
As Matt Yglesias points out at Slate, “Most people agree that one of the most important things the federal government can do is fund basic scientific research. Knowledge is a public good—nonrival and nonexcludable so it’s very important to find ways to produce it. Fortunately, philanthropists are happy to fund a lot of research with their charitable dollars. Also fortunately the government ponies up a lot of money for it. But the nature of a scientific research program is that it necessarily involves going a bit beyond the ordinary and conventional. Therefore enterprising political messaging operatives can scroll through a list of scientific research funding grants and find a few that sound funny and mock them.”
But I think it is easy to argue that robot squirrels are a nonrival and nonexcludable public good as well. The knowledge that our country — not China — has and is deploying robot squirrels to test rattlesnake behavior brings me comfort at night. If I see a robot squirrel hovering ominously over my apartment, I know that it is one of ours. And the research is so interesting — did you know that squirrels might be doing all kinds of neat things with their tails, such as “perception advertising” (“I see you, snake!”) and “vigilance advertising” (“I am LOOKING for you, snake!”). Or possibly, neither! But we’ll never know unless the research continues!
One of the few things that I legitimately believe has a place in government is hard scientific research. Yes, there are private donors out there, but given that the nature of scientific research is that you don’t know when it will come in handy, it is hard to say, “Well, these robot squirrels are clearly useless! Stop giving meth to monkeys!” What is useless probing into fruit flies today is tomorrow’s Hey Look, We Figured Out The Human Genome, Guys.
I understand that, given his position on drones, Paul might be chary of any robotic thing under the control of the executive branch. There, I cannot help him. But at least the robot squirrels are not shrouded in mystery and we have a pretty clear sense of the extent of their ability to antagonize U.S. citizens.
Give up this, to bring back children’s White House tours? Whether the tours were an obvious cut in the first place is another question. But science shouldn’t be the trade-off. Save the Robosquirrel.
All schoolchildren will get out of touring the White House is the dim sense that it is opulent, there is nowhere to sit, and Little Davy needs to go take care of a filibuster function again. If you want to send children on a tour of something that makes America great, send them to tour the robot squirrel study. Just try to keep them from startling the rattlesnakes.