You probably heard about the terrible waste of money where the National Science Foundation threw three million dollars at some stupid scientists who ran shrimp on a treadmill, we bet. It was big news in 2008, and kept on being huge news. Sen. Tom Coburn and Mike Huckabee (God’s Flatulent Instrument on Earth) both cited it as just the worst of a whole laundry list of useless waste in government spending. Here’s Huckabee’s version:
Somehow, the “$500,000” that Huck claimed was being spent on shrimp workouts turned into $3 million by the time Forbes put it on a 2011 list of “silliest uses of taxpayer money,” with this completely accurate description of the research project:
Treadmills for shrimp: $3 million
Scientists created a study to see if sick shrimp displayed the same endurance on a treadmill that a healthy shrimp did. This project boasts the impressive price tag of 3 million dollars.
God, scientists are CRAZY and wasteful, and why would anyone ever want to know whether sick shrimp are less robust than healthy shrimp? That’s just common sense, and science is useless and wasteful.
Except for how there never was a $3 million shrimp treadmill, nor even a $500,000 one. The researcher who was mocked for blowing huge amounts of money on nothing, David Scholnick, has written an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education looking back at the fuss, and explaining that the actual cost of the treadmill probably came to about $47. He adds that, if you want to be really picky about it, not a cent of taxpayer money went into the treadmill itself, since he assembled it using stuff he bodged together himself and paid for it out of his own pocket. His “confession” is pretty hilarious:
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 [… ]
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.
For all the goofiness of a little shrimp flailing its multiple legs on a treadmill — and it is a brilliantly goofy video — the study actually looked at some pretty serious issues, as Scholnick has been explaining since a Today Show appearance back in 2008 when the video first went viral. And frankly, David Scholnick is tired of being the poster boy for Wasteful Shrimp Research:
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.
And then there’s the pivot: As the project wraps up, Scholnick is going to make everything better for America by auctioning the infamous shrimp treadmill off:
All profits will go toward supporting marine-biology research so that grandmothers across the country will no longer be denied medication, our heroic soldiers fighting abroad might be able to get the military equipment they need, and the House science committee can rest easy knowing that they can once again eat fat juicy shrimp—free of bacteria—without using up government funds. For the bargain price of $1-million (shrimp not included)—that’s 67 percent off the price listed by Forbes.com—a lucky individual, perhaps Rep. Lamar Smith (the Texas Republican and chairman of the House science committee), can literally put their money and their shrimp where their mouth is.
Not that Scholnick is going to win any friends on the House Science Committee. They’re too busy shutting down a cool project that studies how ideas spread on the internet because they’re afraid it’s an Orwellian plot to silence conservatives.
Oh, yes, and the shrimp on the treadmill? Still a thing of beauty, and actually doing science: