Science research can be tricky. There are many important questions that for various reasons cannot be investigated directly and so imaginative scientists try to find some proxy method that can shed light on the question. That proxy method can seem outlandish to people who are unable or unwilling to look below the surface to see what the connection is between the visible research activity and the underlying research question. Grandstanding politicians who are anti-science often seize on these things as examples of dilettante behavior by scientists and frivolous use of taxpayer money.
One such case is that of the scientist who supposedly spent $3 million dollars to run shrimp on a treadmill. It was seized on as a prime example of wasteful government spending. The scientist who did this, David Scholnick, a professor of marine biology at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, explains how an experiment that cost $47 became a symbol of massive government bloat.
My name is David, and I am the marine biologist who put a shrimp on a treadmill—a burden I will forever carry. To be clear, the treadmill did not cost millions of taxpayer dollars, the goal of the research was not to exercise shrimp, and the government did not pay me—or anyone else—to work out shrimp on treadmills.
Simply put, my colleagues and I were studying how recent changes in the oceans could potentially affect the ability of marine organisms to fight infections—an important question, given that the amount of bacteria a shrimp is able remove from its body is directly related to how much bacteria could potentially end up on seafood-filled plates. And since shrimp are active animals in nature, it was logical to study the immune response of shrimp during activity.
Exactly how much taxpayer money did go into the now-famous shrimp treadmill? The treadmill was, in fact, made from spare parts—an old truck inner tube was used for the tread, the bearings were borrowed from a skateboard, and a used pump motor was salvaged to power the treadmill. The total price for the highly publicized icon of wasteful government research spending? Less than $50. (All of which I paid for out of my own pocket.)
In science it is often necessary to develop creative solutions to complex problems. How do you get active marine animals to move naturally in a laboratory setting? How do marine animals fight off the glut of pathogens they are exposed to in the harsh environments where they live? These are not simple questions, there are no easy solutions, and they require an enormous amount of time and effort to answer. It is, of course, impossible to understand the meaning and value of complex experiments from a short shrimp video clip pilfered from my faculty webpage and posted to YouTube.
It is disingenuous for the Republican-controlled House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to promote the idea that scientists are wasting millions of taxpayer dollars to run shrimp on treadmills based on a 30-second video clip. Given that every teaspoon of seawater can contain millions of bacteria, it does not take a mental giant to understand that the health of marine organisms and the safety of the seafood we eat are closely related.
The health of the organisms that inhabit the largest ecosystem on the planet and the potential bacterial contamination of the food we eat are serious and important questions. I, like many of my colleagues, are deeply concerned by the minimization and politicization of our work.
Here is the video of the shrimp getting its workout. It’s actually pretty cool. Maybe not worth $3 million but definitely worth more than $47.
Scholnick is offering to sell the treadmill at a bargain price of just $1 million to all the politicians and others who made a big fuss about it.