Protecting Weird Science: Why We Pay to Study Dog Urine, Guinea Pig Hearing, and Meth Rats

Posted by Tim Fernholz


Sometimes it’s easy to make fun of the government’s science projects. It was easy to make fun of the kids who crushed it at the science fair in elementary school too, but the kid with the functioning marshmallow cannon probably has a much cooler job than you do today.

Now, a rare bipartisan coalition of politicians—plus an assortment of scientists, universities, and business leaders—are reminding us that when it comes to doing our research homework, it’s better to take the long view: Even weird science projects can pay off big down the road.

In 2009, the economic stimulus dedicated a chunk of money to scientific research, an effort to maintain steady investment in innovation as many universities lost funding during the recession. Supporting research and development, the logic goes, will help the U.S. remain economically competitive.

But Republicans in the Senate, led by perpetual curmudgeon John McCain, piled on to projects supported by the government funding—including an investigation of the affects of methamphetamines on female rats, a study of ant populations in eastern Africa—as a waste of time and money.

These studies may sound goofy, at least at first glance, but there are good reasons we fund them: Understanding how meth affects rats gives us tools to fight addiction in humans, and learning about ants in Africa enhances our knowledge of the ecosystem there and at home.

That hasn’t stopped anti-spending crusaders from looking foolish when they knock the hard work of America’s scientific community. Former Senator William Proxmire (D-Delaware) began issuing mocking "Golden Fleece" awards to recognize spending he deemed wasteful, yet he was never cited for dangerously bad wordplay.

Proxmire’s award once knocked a $250,000 study of screwworm mating habits; it turns out that research saved the cattle industry more than $20 billion as it battled the pesky parasite. Another study of why rats use exercise wheels that earned a razz from Proxmire revealed valuable information about how and why people exercise.

The list of weird science projects that yielded benefits to the rest of us goes on—dog urine studies that helped diabetes patients, and a study of guinea pigs' hearing gave doctors new ways to prevent hearing loss in infants.

To help remind voters (and his colleagues) of the value of these efforts, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee), along with Republican colleagues like Charlie Dent and Robert Dold and other Democrats like Jason Altimre and Rush Holt, announced last week that they will begin bestowing the "Golden Goose' award on odd-sounding studies that laid golden eggs to benefit society.  The judges, a distinguished panel of scientists, will announce the first awards in September.

That's not to say that every science project the government funds is inherently valuable, but the opposite assumption—that strange-sounding inquiries are all bad—is only useful for political demagoguery, not solving problems. Our politicians would be better served if they took a more scientific approach to research funding, and the Golden Goose awards are an excellent start.

Photo courtesy of the White House