In Massachusetts, Brennan had set up a Google alert set for the words “duck genitalia.” So she knew she was in trouble. But once the spotlight is on you, what do you do?
Nothing, decided the other researcher who’d worked on the duck study.
“These people are angry. Mad. And they’re not interested in the topic, right?” said Richard Prum, a Yale professor who had overseen Brennan’s work. He would be glad to talk about the science, but this wasn’t about the science. “So I didn’t dive in.”
There is a precedent for that. In the past, other researchers have tried to stay out of public debates on their research. Some have tried to correct the record — and found that Washington wasn’t listening.
“A lot of time, it’s mischaracterized as, ‘Hey, these people are [getting] $300,000 to build a robotic squirrel,’ ” said Rulon Clark, a professor at San Diego State University and one of the creators of “Robosquirrel.” Clark was one of the researchers who used a portion of that larger federal grant — $13,700 or so — to build a fleet of taxidermied rodents, stuffed with robot guts.
That research showed Clark something interesting about squirrels. When they wave their tails at rattlesnakes, they appear less likely to be bitten.
It also showed him something that depressed him about Congress, where politicians continue to get the Robosquirrel story wrong.
“Mr. President, what about the $300,000 for a robotic squirrel?” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) asked at an annual gathering of conservative activists last month.
So it goes. There is a frustrated professor in Atlanta who was widely mocked for taking a federal grant to study chimps throwing feces. Another one in Charleston, S.C., was accused of spending about half a million dollars getting shrimp to run on tiny treadmills. Louis E. Burnett, the biologist working on the shrimp study, corrected the record on the cost, saying that the treadmills cost just $1,000 or so and were just a small part of the larger study. But the mistake is frequently un-corrected.
“Then there’s the infamous $559,000 for a project to have shrimp run on a treadmill. To me that hardly sounds like justification to give the NSF more money,” said then-Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) last year, calling for the agency’s budget to be cut. Flake is now a senator.
Brennan, in her piece for Slate, sought to defend not just her research but also the broader idea of federal grants for obscure science. Her funding was not in danger, since it had been allotted years before. But she and others are worried that the NSF budget will be cut as Washington embraces austerity. Already, the foundation has lost about $356 million during sequestration, a cut that was large but not devastating.
Brennan says that science needs this money. So does she. Brennan plans to apply for another grant to continue her duck research.
“Absolutely. Otherwise I would not be able to do any more research,” Brennan said. “Who’s going to give me money to do basic science, if not the government?”
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