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Cheap shots

Republican criticism of stimulus-funded science projects is ill-informed and wide of the mark.

Critics of US President Barack Obama have delighted in picking out projects funded by last year's $787-billion economic-stimulus package that they believe are examples of waste. So it was no surprise when Republican senators John McCain (Arizona) and Tom Coburn (Oklahoma) issued a report on 3 August called Summertime Blues: 100 Stimulus Projects that Give Taxpayers the Blues.

McCain, his party's presidential candidate in 2008, and Coburn, a physician by training, sound an ostensibly responsible tone in the report, arguing that taxpayers deserve a stimulus that rebuilds the economy in a way that expands opportunities for future generations. They claim that the 100 stimulus projects on their list — among them more than a dozen science-related grants — are money-wasting endeavours that fail to meet that goal.

Certainly, such gargantuan public spending deserves close scrutiny. But a look at McCain and Coburn's discussion of the science projects on their list suggests that their analyses are at best superficial, and at worst just a series of cheap shots.

For instance, item 6 is called “Ants Talk. Taxpayers Listen”. It discusses a five-year, $1.9-million study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and based at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. McCain and Coburn ridicule the project for its ambition to capture, photograph and analyse some 3,000 species of ant on islands in the southwest Indian Ocean. They don't mention that the study is so far from America's shores for biodiversity reasons, but could eventually encompass ants worldwide. Nor do they note — as the investigators explain in an award abstract on the NSF website — that ant diversity is a leading indicator of habitat quality in conservation biology. So a better understanding of the history and genetics of ants could pave the way for better-informed conservation decisions.

Another target is “Monkeys Get High for Science”, which refers to a $144,541-project funded by the National Institutes of Health and based at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The study monitors cocaine self-administration in monkeys. Recent work has suggested a link between addiction and glutamate activity in the brain, so the researchers are examining how certain glutamate receptors change during and after cocaine exposure. The ultimate goal is more effective treatment for addicts. But McCain and Coburn mention none of this, instead asking “how studying drug-crazed primates would improve the national economy”.

Granted, neither the stimulus nor the science it funds is beyond criticism. Yet the science projects, at least, have survived peer review, which tends to be a far more sceptical and rigorous vetting process than anything McCain and Coburn are likely to provide. US scientists should remember that, and not be cowed by a report that aims to embarrass the Obama administration and unseat Democrats in this year's midterm election.

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Cheap shots. Nature 466, 797 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/466797b

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