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Opinion Should the U.S. spend $200,000 on how 500-year-old fish bones relate to Tanzanian social status?

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

Should Uncle Sam spend $200,000 to study how 500-year-old fish bones relate to the social status of residents in a Tanzanian port city?

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) doesn’t think so.

That example from the National Science Foundation (NSF) comes from his “Federal Fumbles: 100 ways the government dropped the ball.” It’s the second annual installment on what he considers wasteful, inefficient government operations or spending on dubious projects.

It’s Lankford’s way of dramatizing the nation’s fiscal problems.

The 100 programs cited represent $247 billion in wasteful spending or inefficient regulations, according to Lankford.

“Although the federal debt wasn’t a major focus during the presidential campaign, it remains a serious impending crisis that must be addressed. In fiscal year 2016 alone, we had a $587 billion deficit and our federal debt is now an outrageous $19.5 trillion,” he said. “To lower the debt, we need to grow the economy, and we must root out inefficiencies, duplication, and wasteful spending wherever they exist. This ‘Federal Fumbles’ report provides specific examples of wasteful spending and unnecessary regulations that are not in the taxpayer’s best interest.”

For example, the fish bones.

Last year NSF funded research “to determine whether there is any correlation between where a family was in the social ladder and the type of food eaten,” said Lankford’s 152-page report. The location was Songo Mnara, Tanzania, “a major trading hub for the Indian Ocean from the 1300s to the 1500s, where gold, ivory, silver, perfumes, Chinese porcelain, and other valuable goods were traded among what is now the Middle East, India, and China.”

Lankford doesn’t scoff at the value of such research, at least not directly, but his report does question why the NSF funds it.

NSF was founded “to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare,” with “national” italicized for emphasis in his report. “It is difficult to determine, and NSF does not explain, how studying the remains of food consumed 800 years ago in a city on the other side of the planet accomplishes that objective.”

NSF spokesperson Aya Collins said the research was “designed in partnership with a local, low-income school to increase participation in science by underrepresented minorities. … The results of this research have broad implications for how we understand the roles social diversity and inequality can play in social mobility.”

The report covered projects from a variety of agencies. It was too much to look at all 100 projects for this story, so we selected a few of Lankford’s “federal fumbles” from NSF and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

  • NSF spent $412,930 on research on studying glaciers with feminist theories. “Now the federal government appears to want the American public to believe there is a connection between feminism and the study of glaciers,” Lankford wrote. Not so, says NSF. “Sen. Lankford’s report incorrectly states that this award was ‘research for a paper arguing glaciers should be studied and seen from a feminist point of view,’” Collins said. “NSF did not issue its award to specifically support the paper referenced in Sen. Lankford’s report, and the award proposal did not mention a paper on gender and glaciers as a potential outcome.”
  • NSF funded study on how court rulings make people feel. The two-year, $315,000 study focused on the New York Housing Court to determine, Lankford’s report said, how people directly or indirectly affected “feel about a major judicial decision.” According to Collins, this research examines the ability of judges to “impart essential legal information to parties appearing before the bench, and to do so without jeopardizing the appearance of impartiality and fairness required of the judiciary.”
  • NIH provided $2 million for a multiyear study “about how kids don’t like to eat food that has been sneezed on.” Among the findings, according to Lankford, “when children aged 5-8 were given the choice between allegedly sneezed-on food and clean food, they chose the clean food.” Duh. NIH response from Renate Myles: “Despite the complexity and significance of food selection, developmental psychologists have devoted little attention to studying how infants and children perceive, learn, and reason about foods. … The long-term goal of this research is to design research-supported interventions for promoting healthy eating throughout the lifespan.”
  • NIH provided $10 million to determine stress is a factor in drug use. Tracking the location of drug users, “asking them their feelings,” and using an electronic device to record stress levels and drug use “does not seem to provide the kind of results American families should expect at the high price of $10 million,” Lankford’s report said. An estimated 40 percent to 60 percent of those treated for drug addiction relapse. “This project is developing innovative methods and technologies for measuring risk of relapse in people in recovery from drug addiction…” Myles said. “This research provides the foundation for developing mobile health tools that can predict relapse risk and deliver effective interventions in real time to prevent it.”