Another Scientist Calls Out Sen. Coburn's Misleading, Juvenile "Report"

August 23, 2011 3:33 pm ET — Jamison Foser

Sen. Tom Coburn

In April, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a report ridiculing supposedly wasteful National Science Foundation grants for funny-sounding research. Coburn spokesman John Hart later told Gizmodo that Coburn and his staff contacted grant recipients for input and comment prior to the publication of the report — but Gizmodo reported that several scientists said they had never heard from Coburn or his staff.

Since then, a National Science Foundation board member has blasted Coburn's shortsighted attack on scientific research. And the second-largest newspaper in Coburn's home state has criticized him for "myopic thinking" and for taking "cheap shots at government spending" on Oklahoma construction projects without considering input from "respected and experienced leaders from his own home state." (The construction project was unrelated to the NSF report, but is another example of Coburn's pattern of criticizing spending without seeking input from those who know the projects it's funding best.)

Now yet another scientist has come forward to say Coburn didn't contact him before criticizing his research:

Biologist Lou Burnett was in his car when his cellphone rang recently. It was a CNN reporter, asking about the fact that his research had been featured in a new report about wasteful government spending.

That was news to Burnett, who works at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. "I was pretty irritated," he recalls.

The report, put out by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), blasted the National Science Foundation, a major government funder of research, saying it squandered taxpayer money on questionable science projects, including one pursued by Burnett and his colleagues that involved putting shrimp on a tiny treadmill.

Lawmakers and political groups like to point to government spending that seems wasteful — especially in tough economic times. And one popular target has been scientific studies that either sound silly or involve foreign countries or have to do with sex.

As I've previously explained, this is a juvenile and irresponsible approach to public policy:

Coburn, like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), is fond of producing lengthy lists of ostensibly wasteful and absurd government spending in an effort to enhance his reputation for fiscal responsibility. But these lists are actually an indication of the exact opposite. The funding in question tends to be absolutely trivial in the context of the federal budget — the Tulsa World notes that the element of the bridge to which Coburn objected "will cost only about $6 million." And projects aren't selected for the chopping block based on a substantive analysis of their worthiness, but because they sound funny.

That's an approach you'd expect from a third-grader, not a United States senator who aspires to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the result of this juvenile approach is not that the people responsible for it are laughed off the stage, but rather that the public has an inflated view of role of wasteful and absurd spending in the government's budget.

As it turns out, Coburn not only failed to conduct a substantive assessment of the merits of Burnett's research — he misrepresented the study and the grant that funded it.

According to Burnett:

Take the case of the "shrimp on a treadmill." Burnett says the senator's report linked that work to a half-million-dollar research grant. But that money actually went to a lot of different research that he and his colleagues did on this economically important seafood species.

The treadmills were just a small part of it, a way to measure how shrimp respond to changes in water quality. Burnett says the first treadmill was built by a colleague from scraps and was basically free, and the second was fancier and cost about $1,000. The senator's report was misleading, says Burnett, "and it suggests that much money was spent on seeing how long a shrimp can run on a treadmill, which was totally out of context."

John Hart, a Coburn spokesperson, said in an email that "our report never claimed all the money was spent on shrimp on a treadmill. The scientists doth protest too much. Receiving federal funds is a privilege, not a right. If they don't want their funding scrutinized, don't ask."

Note that that's the same John Hart who previously — and, it is now clear, falsely — said Coburn's staff sought input from grant recipients before publishing the NSF report. Now he's attacking scientists for pointing out that his boss misrepresented their work — which, it's clear, Coburn did. Hart says the report "never claimed all the money was spent on shrimp on a treadmill," but a look at the report itself shows this claim to be, at best, deeply disingenuous. The Coburn report devotes eight paragraphs to the grants in question — and all eight paragraphs deal with the treadmill aspect of the research. Here's how Coburn introduces the matter:

How long can a shrimp run on a treadmill?  Scientist put shrimp on a tiny treadmill to determine if sickness impaired the mobility of the crustaceans. Researchers at the Grice Marine Laboratory at the College of Charleston, South Carolina have received at least 12 NSF grants totaling over $3 million over the last decade for their work, including a $559,681 award "Impaired Metabolism and Performance in Crustaceans Exposed to Bacteria."

Readers of the Coburn report would have no idea that the first treadmill was "basically free" and the second "cost about $1,000." Indeed, by listing the total amount the scientists received, then discussing only the treadmill research, the report creates exactly the opposite impression.

So, in short: Sen. Coburn produced a juvenile report attacking scientific research not on the merits of the research but for sounding funny — a report that misrepresented at least some of the grants in question. His staff then falsely claimed they sought input from grant recipients. Then, when a scientist — who Coburn's office never contacted for input before releasing the report — pointed out that the report misrepresented his work, Coburn's staff disingenuously attacked the scientist.

It's hard to imagine a more fundamentally unserious approach to legislating than this. It would be more responsible, and intellectually defensible, to simply throw darts at a list of government grants and propose eliminating each one you hit. Alternatively, Coburn could consider how much money taxpayers could save if they didn't pay the salaries of senators and staff who conduct such clownish work and then lie to the public about it.