Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shrimp on a Treadmill - Bad Science?

Recently Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) went on record as critical of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for wasting taxpayer funds to conduct questionable research, such as: determining if spending too much time playing FarmVille had an impact on Facebook user’s relationships – and – designing a robot to fold laundry – and – running shrimp on a treadmill.

Senator Coburn appears to be stepping into the shoes of the late Senator Edward Proxmire who famously issued his “Golden Fleece Award”: “to focus media attention on projects he felt were self-serving and wasted taxpayer dollars.” [1] On one occasion Senator Proxmire became incensed that taxpayer money was being spent for the apparently ridiculous purpose of studying the sex life of a fruit fly.

However as it turned out, understanding the sex life of a fruit fly had serious economic implications for fruit growers in Florida whose crops, and livelihoods, were being decimated by the pests. The study of their chemical sex attractants (pheromones) proved the be the most effective way of trapping and destroying the pest fly population. The senator was said to have earned a reputation for unfairly obstructing scientific research for political gain.

But a robot that folds towels? Really?
Robots are extremely adept at handling rigid objects in precise, repetitive applications, they are used extensively in industry for this reason. However robots are not well suited in handling “deformable” objects; non-rigid things in unstructured environments. Folding laundry is an excellent application to develop robots that can manipulate pliable three-dimensional objects then assess and formulate non-structured actions in order to complete the task. [2]

Ok, but shrimp walking on a treadmill? C-mon!
The shrimp treadmill, invented and built by [David] Scholnick [Pacific University], allows researchers to measure the activity of an exercising shrimp for a set period of time at known speed and oxygen levels. "These studies will give us a better idea of how marine animals can perform in their native habitat when faced with increasing pathogens and immunological challenges." [3]
I don’t know about you, but I am not enthused about eating sick shrimp – wood fired or deep fried!

However, in my opinion, Senator Coburn is certainly no Senator Proxmier. As he told the Wall Street Journal:
“As a practicing physician and a two-time cancer survivor, I understand the benefits of scientific research,” the senator said. “There is no question NSF serves an important – and legitimate – purpose in our society and has contributed to scientific discovery… Unfortunately, in some ways NSF has undermined its core mission through mismanagement and misplaced priorities.” [4]
Senator Coburn's intent seems to be emphasizing that, during times of economic deficit and budget constraints, he would like to see social sciences NOT be the primary focal point of the nations premiere science research agency. He believes that the NSF should take it’s funding more seriously by focusing on research that provides the highest benefit to the largest demographic.

Senator Coburn's point about the NSA needing to make judicious choices about how their resource dollars are allocated is both valid and reasonable criticism.
1. Wikipedia, Senator Edward Proxmire.
2. Towel folding Robot (Video and article), Wired.com, April 5, 2010,
3. Scientists put shrimp on a treadmill, MSNBC.com, Oct. 18, 2006
4. Sen. Coburn Targets Shrimp on Treadmill, Other NSF Spending, Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2011

Towel folding robot video


DJan said...

When I worked at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group, many of the scientists in other divisions disparaged our group as being "fluffy" and not science at all. Social science is always the first to be cut in difficult times. The group doesn't exist any more. We received our funding from the NSF for twenty years.

Paul said...

Let the robots do the folding Robert...Chinese laundries will never recover...In the words of Thomas Dolby, " She blinded me with science "...

Wow, that was awkward said...

I wish politicians would stay out of science. This reminds me of the Republicans that say Al Gore wasted time and money and that we don't really know if there is climate change going on. My five year old is smarter than that.

Cognitive Dissenter said...

If we could only take back the bailout money that was misappropriated for platinum parachutes and similar bad (criminal?) investments, I might be okay with funding the (ahem) serious researching involving shrimp on a treadmill. It's the fact that Dubya is set for life, notwithstanding the fact that he's a moron who sold us down the proverbial river, that really skewers my shrimp.

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJan I am all for research, and social sciences among them. But the reality of our budget crisis looms. One of my favorite areas is the manned space missions at NASA. This month the Space Shuttle will have flown it's final mission - we have no replacement program and nothing planned. Further lifting of men and material into space will be provided by our former competitors, the Russians. I guess you could say the Russians finally "won" the space race. It makes me sad.

Paul Alas, the Chinese will likely be the ones manufacturing these robots... cheaper!

Awkward I know, poor Republicans - Global Climate Change didn't happen in one term election term therefore it isn't happening at all. It's sort of like denying the health risks of smoking; if you don't drop dead on your first drag, what's the health issue??

Dissenter Already the news is terming it "The Bush-Obama Bailout". Oops! All the research put into projecting economic policies appears to be stuck on a treadmill as well.

Nance said...

Well argued. But who gets to decide which types are research are most useful at this juncture? If we could get our hands on some really solid psychological and sociological research that pointed the way to breaking the logjam of polarized political opinion in this country, I'd say that would be the most useful application of taxpayer money imaginable.

And, Cognitive Dissenter, love the shrimp skewering comment!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Nance You make a salient point - one could easily dismiss a significant focus of social science research as hastily as Proxmier did the sex life of that fruit fly.

As I oft quote Pasteur: "Chance favors the prepared mind."

Sightings said...

Robert: I dunno about a lot of this scientific research, social or not, but I'm with you on the space program. I think the benefits outweigh the costs; plus, I wanna know what's out there ...

The Mother said...

Sometimes it's hard for those of us outside of a field to see the far reaching implications of scientific work. For instance, one of the most important studies linking increased muscle mass to decreasing osteoporosis risk got it's start in lobsters. Really.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Sitings I do as well, but unmanned missions are the most practical. Too much energy is required to maintain humans in space. It will be a while before our species ever touches other planets... if ever.

Dr. Mom I can totally sign on to lobsters for increasing my muscle mass, particularly when dipped in butter.

Antares Cryptos said...

It is precisely this ignorant attitude that will make China the patent holders of our future technologies.

Did you read Peter Diamond's article in the NYTimes?

With you on the lobster.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos China has an open checkbook when it comes to supporting research - though I suspect it is a narrow focus toward technological, and therefore, economic advancement.

I did read the article about Diamond. The Republicans are determined as hell that this economy is not going to get better during Obama's watch. If that means blocking Diamond from sitting on the Fed, they are ideologically committed.

Homer Simpson voice: "Mmmmmm, lobster..." drool drool

Infidel753 said...

Actually, manned space travel is a good example. It's an obsolete technology -- too expensive, too dangerous, and serving no valid scientific (or other) purpose.

We've explored most of the solar system with machines, at a small fraction of the cost it would have taken to have human travelers do it, and our abilities along those lines will only increase as artificial intelligence improves.

If people feel some romantic pull toward frozen, uninhabitable wastelands far removed from civilization, there's always Antarctica.

GutsyWriter said...

That robot is a little slow. My son is doing research on trying to control the brains of earthworms. Supposedly, they can make mice turn left with a joystick. What next?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Infidel Quite true, our earliest probes (Voyager among others) have even left our solar system. The manned missions now operate primarily in low earth orbit. True a lot of science and technology has been developed and tested in the Space Station but the future is in unmanned.

I am amazed about how little we know still about the deep ocean. Talk about a hostile environment!! The only manned exploration of the Mariana Trench was done back in 1960 by the US Navy's "Trieste". Information gained from ocean exploration has more direct effect on our earth's population and environment today, in my opinion.

Gutsy The robot is INDEED slow, and they actually speeded up the video. Notice how the robot turns the cloth to make a 3D visual map in it's memory. This is a great illustration of how remarkable the human brain is and how much of what our brains do is unconscious; we take it for granted.

Sounds like a fun project with the earthworms and the joystick... possibly a potential game app for the I-Phone perhaps. :)

Paul said...

I know they probably will Robert, but it so nice to have my laundry hand folded by loving Chinese hand. Plus where else can I practice my Cantonese ?

crnelius said...

One of the biggest problems with "selective" research funding, is that we never know when a highly beneficial discovery will accidentally come from research. Two that immediately come to mind are Teflon and Penicillin. Both have had a profound impact in all of our lives. Penicillin is obvious, but Teflon has had a much greater impact than most people realize. (it isn't only for keeping your food from sticking to the pan.) For instance, Teflon was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb. (It was used to contain highly reactive uranium hexafloride that was critical in the uranium enrichment process.) But Teflon has also been a critical component during the entire history of the U.S. space exploration. (which I see has become a topic from some of the comments.)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Crnelius True, there can be that missed "Eureka moment" which Pasteur again reminded us about "chance favoring the prepared mind"; warning experimenters about potentially missing that which they were not looking for. Indeed, those chance discoveries you mention, as well as in medicine and materials, etc. have given humanity leaps in technological breakthroughs.

Still, though, I believe the senator has a point - is ALL research of equal potential value? The funding for the FaceBook study, for example - is this sort of thing the best application of our limited research dollars?

Of course if I had my way, we would be spending far more on scientific research and much less on defense and wars overseas. But then again even the defense department is the beneficiary of research funding; not all of which is directed at weapons systems. It's a complicated issue requiring a lot of oversight.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Even when the information, such as what was learned from the shrimp on the treadmill, is gathered, what action is taken...is there money to make adjustments based on findings? Facts without the money to follow-through seem a bit meaningless. But I am the first to admit mine is not a scientific mind.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn No doubt the results of these research projects have broad economic ramifications.

secret agent woman said...

I think the value of the research should be evaluated by scientists, not senators with no scientific training (and the vast majority of physicians are not trained scientists).

Antares Cryptos said...

Left you a comment on mine in response.

I know some bloggers just aren't into "awards" or badges, so I'm not sure if you were joking or not.

I thought of you, but thought you disliked blog awards. Personally, I think it's yours, but I'll leave it up to you if you want to add the science/geek badge to your blog or not.

Let me know, and I'll add you to the list. My pleasure if you accept it;)