Friday Golden Fleece

Blue monkey

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitas stuhlmanni

Dating back to at least the 1970s, Washington politicians have a tradition of decrying scientific funding that they deem wasteful. From Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award to Sarah Palin’s “fruit fly research in Paris, France” to Senator Tom Coburn‘s annual “Wastebook,” particular research projects that can be made to sound silly are singled out for ridicule. The politicians, of course, have every right to make these criticisms, but scientists often see them as unwelcome intrusions by elected officials who (almost always) lack the scientific background to understand the research they mock.
So how have the politicians done? Have the projects singled out for ridicule indeed been ridiculous wastes of taxpayer money? I (and hopefully some guest bloggers) will be taking a look at some of the criticized projects to understand just how insightful politicians are at identifying useless research.

Senator Coburn was one of the most vocal of the self-appointed arbiters of worthwhile and worthless science until his retirement earlier this year. He (with Representative Lamer Smith) spearheaded the successful effort to restrict National Science Foundation funding in social sciences to those projects that promote “national security or the economic interests of the United States” (the requirement was short-lived). Senator Coburn also authored an annual “Wastebook” from 2010-2014, listing what he considered the most egregious examples of wasteful government spending.
In the first of these Wastebooks, item #72 (of 100) is “Studying Wild Blue Monkey’s [sic] Business”:
The National Science Foundation awarded a $168,766 federal grant to Columbia University researchers to study the sexual behavior of wild blue monkeys by analyzing monkey feces in Africa. The project, which is titled “Group size and reproductive success of female and male blue monkeys,” seeks to understand the evolutionary basis of group living. However, the investigation requires the scientists to observe the monkeys doing some interesting business. According to the abstract, “[t]he researchers monitor demographic changes, female social and sexual behavior, and collect fecal samples for genetic paternity assignment using microsatellite loci.” The same Columbia University researcher was previously awarded $276,219 in federal grant money to study African blue monkeys also by collecting and analyzing feces.
(Notice the focus on sex and feces. This will be a repeated theme, trying to make the research sound frivolous: a hundred and seventy thousand dollars for monkey porn and monkey poo!)
The grant Sen. Coburn refers to is Marina Cords‘ 2010 NSF grant from the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences. The abstract is here, as is, conveniently, a list of the publications that have so far resulted from this grant. It’s a little early to judge the impact of this grant, since it runs through September, 2016, but so far we have one paper each in Nature, Animal Behaviour, PNAS, Evolution, Am. J. Physical Anthropology, Behavioural Ecology & Sociobiology, Am. J. Primatology, and Behavioural Ecology, along with three book chapters. Since the grant was funded, seven graduate students and five undergraduates have graduated from Dr. Cords’ lab. Dr. Cords has been studying these monkeys for over 30 years and has produced a huge body of research on their social behavior. The work supported by the grant in question continues this research, focusing on central questions in behavioral evolution, such as the costs and benefits of sociality, intra- and inter-group aggression, and survival and reproduction. Sen. Coburn sees funding this very successful research program as a waste of taxpayer money. What do you think?


  1. moarscienceplz says

    If Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma (state motto: Our government representatives are even stupider than Texas’!) had lived in London in 1854, I like to imagine he would have called a press conference at the site of John Snow’s cholera-infested water pump and drunk a large glass of that water to show how little weight he gave to Snow’s findings.

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