Researchers Attacked -- and They Answer Back

Republican senator renews debate over federal support for studies whose significance is not immediately apparent.

May 12, 2016
Senator Jeff Flake's 20 Questions report

Senator Jeff Flake came to work Tuesday with cups of pudding -- meant to look like dirt -- each complete with a couple of colorful gummy worms.

“Getting ready to worm my way into the @SenatePress Gallery,” he tweeted.

The cups, which the Arizona Republican handed out to journalists, came affixed with a sticker: “Studies that will make you squirm.”

The purpose of the treats was to promote Flake’s new report -- equally replete with puns -- criticizing 20 government-funded studies, each headlined with the question it set out to answer: Do drunk birds slur when they sing? Where does it hurt the most to be stung by a bee? Are Republicans or Democrats more disgusted by eating worms?

Flake says the studies pose a bigger question: Is this where federal dollars should be going?

Welcome to the latest skirmish in the battle by some congressional Republicans to attack certain forms of research, particularly in the social and behavioral sciences. This week's episode prompted articles in the hometowns of some of the researchers -- many of whom say the sensationalist report mischaracterizes the studies, painting critical research as self-indulgent frivolity.

The gummy worms come from a study at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln: researchers showed subjects a series of disgusting images -- such as a man eating “a large mouthful of writhing worms.” Participants who showed more disgust, measured by their physiological reactions, were more likely to self-identify as conservative.

“One of the things that we study as political psychologists is confirmation bias,” said Kevin Smith, chairman of the Nebraska’s political science department and one of the study's authors. “That report, at least as it referenced our research, seemed to be telling a very one-sided story.”

The Nebraska researchers, who received grants from the National Science Foundation, were interested in why people end up at different ends of the political spectrum. That question matters, Smith said, because of the consequences of polarization. By understanding where political beliefs come from, the researchers hope to help foster communication between people with opposing views.

“The implication is that we took a bunch of taxpayers’ money and blew it all trying to figure out whether Republicans or Democrats were more scared of worms,” Smith said. “It’s hard to even know how to react to that. That's just not what we were doing.”

‘Music to the Ears of Taxpayers’

Making fun of odd-sounding research is something of a national pastime. From 1975 to 1988, Senator William Proxmire, a Democrat from Wisconsin, issued the Golden Fleece Awards to research projects and other spending he viewed as wasteful. And in more recent years, a series of Republican politicians have made many attempts to cut research funding, particularly in the social sciences.

But those seemingly silly studies can have big impacts, others argue. Research with a strange premise can be an easy target, but it’s hard to predict what research will have important implications later.

In 2012, the Golden Goose Award was established. The award goes to strange-sounding federally funded research that led to groundbreaking results. Every year, the awards lead to headlines like “How a fluorescent jellyfish -- and federal dollars -- helped fight AIDS” and “Why ‘the sex life of the screwworm’ deserves taxpayer dollars.”

“We don't know that what we do today -- or what seems silly today -- won't have significant benefit in the future,” said Charles Snowdon, a psychology and zoology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

One of Snowdon’s studies -- on what type of music chimpanzees prefer -- ended up on Flake’s top-20 list. The study found that chimpanzees prefer silence to Western music, while they like African and Indian music, as well as music composed especially for them.

“Spending public money making music for monkeys and creating playlists for chimpanzees,” Flake wrote, “is not music to the ears of taxpayers.”

But Snowdon said that this particular research wasn’t supported by federal dollars. While federal funding was maintaining the colony, this study was incidental -- and it was not the reason the research was funded.

Even so, he added, the research is far from frivolous. Most primate laboratories play music for captive animals as a form of enrichment. This study suggests that music isn’t the best approach. It also tells us more about the origins of music -- something we’ve come to believe is uniquely human.

But Flake’s report -- flashy, colorful, sensationalist -- doesn’t get at that nuance, Smith said. “What he’s put out is essentially clickbait.”

“Trying to provide a broader context for our research against a sexy headline or a bumper sticker, that's just tough to do,” he added. “What burns through the debate is the bumper sticker.”


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