Republicans target myrmecology as “pure waste”

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The Republican Party speaks:

GOP senators on Tuesday highlighted “pure waste” in the billions of stimulus funds spent this year, including money for fossil research in Argentina, puppet shows and to protect cruise ships from terrorist attacks…

What does the Republican Party consider wasteful? Science, apparently:

Half a million dollars went to Arizona State University to study the genetic makeup of ants to determine distinctive roles in ant colonies; $450,000 went to the University of Arizona to study the division of labor in ant colonies.

“I had no idea that so much expertise concerning ants resided in the major universities of my state,” said McCain. “I say that with an element of pride, but I’m not sure it’s deserving of these taxpayers’ dollars.”

This is bullshit. How does taxpayer-funded ant research produce value for the economy? I’ll let National Geographic explain:

Other companies also have profited by imitating ants. In Italy and Switzerland, fleets of trucks carrying milk and dairy products, heating oil, and groceries all use ant-foraging rules to find the best routes for deliveries. In England and France, telephone companies have made calls go through faster on their networks by programming messages to deposit virtual pheromones at switching stations, just as ants leave signals for other ants to show them the best trails.

In the U.S., Southwest Airlines has tested an ant-based model to improve service at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. With about 200 aircraft a day taking off and landing on two runways and using gates at three concourses, the company wanted to make sure that each plane got in and out as quickly as possible, even if it arrived early or late.

Ants are faced with the same logistical problems that we face in our own societies. With limited resources, how should ants most efficiently transport cargo? What are the fastest ways to share information? How do ants manage traffic congestion? What is the best way to patrol to territorial boundaries? How do agricultural species maintain their cultivars free from weeds?

120 million years of evolution have produced over 12,000 extant ant species. Each of these has found solutions to various logistical issues appropriate to their ecological context.  Some solutions- maybe even most of them- will not directly apply to human problems. But some do. And taxpayer-funded research into ant behavior is yielding organizational insights that may already be saving companies more than the public originally invested in the research.

I suppose a valid ideological counter-argument might be made that science should not be a responsibility of government, and that research investment should be left to the private sector. Fair enough. Or perhaps a careful cost-benefit analysis might show that programs other than myrmecology would prove a more lucrative research investment. Fine.

But either of these approaches are vastly more sophisticated than what the Republicans are doing. In the place of staking out a coherent position, they’ve instead read through the stimulus bill and fingered words that made them snicker.

Money for bee learning? Ha, ha, must be wasteful. Fossils in Argentina? Ho Ho!

And this is the entirety of Republican intellectual engagement on spending policy. Juvenile theatrics of pointing and laughing at things they neither understand nor wish to.

27 thoughts on “Republicans target myrmecology as “pure waste””

  1. It does seem that while the Republicans’ normal modus operandi of late is their knee-jerk nay-saying, about the best the Republicans can come up with these days to sound clever in their political machinations is the sort of mean-spirited, closed-minded ridicule described here. Sadly, a huge portion of our population appears to think this is intelligent behavior.

  2. I can try to act surprised if you think it’ll help. With the deficit run up to monstrous proportions long before the economy tanked and long before the stimulus bill–and we need not mention precisely which political party did that overzealous spending since it’s not the party currently in power–now seems an odd time to complain about spending a bit of credit to help the economy. But what do I know? I don’t make the mess; I just live in it.

    As for funding science, you must understand those deriding the practice are those historically against science in general; it too often steps on their toes and their commercial interests.

  3. Ah, ASU, isn’t that the university whose vice president named a couple of beetle species after George Bush and Dick Cheney? Surely these guys could go a little easier on ol’ ASU.

    In a less snarky (or ant-related) vein, one could also point out that ASU organized and hosted the first US-based conference on iridescence biology. Photonic crystals and optical metamaterials are hot stuff with a lot of industrial and military applications — but the only self-assembling ones are found in nature, e.g. our friend, the entimine weevil.

    1. The 2010 conference at ASU in the series that hosted the iridescence conference is focused on biomimicry of social insect systems. One of the attendees is Doug Lawson, the person responsible for implementing ant-based algorithms for Southwest Airlines mentioned in the Nat Geo article.

      There will also be a public event where labs will bring out some of their ant/bee colonies for display and talk about what they’re doing, and Ray Mendez is giving a talk. Hopefully this will help inform people in the local community (I guess that includes John McCain?) about research at ASU and the social insect research in general.

  4. Amazing, seeing how many people would disagree with the millions spent on campaigns, election day parties, and the various other expenditures that politicians seem to rack up without concern or public oversight!

  5. Ugh, not this again. I lost my respect for McCain when he denounced “bear DNA research” during one of the campaign debates. It’s amazing that the people in charge of running this country understand SO little about how science is done.

  6. I lost respect for McCain when he made Sarah Palin his Vice President. No one who wasn’t suffering from mental illness would put that women one heart attack away from running the country. She named her kids like she was casting a play: Bristol, Piper, Track, Willow, and Trig!”

    Fire Ants and Argentine Ants are still invasive species causing economic damage. Should we stop all funding of research to combat this threat?

  7. Your argument is not very good. Every one of National Geographic’s examples does not go much farther than a sound bite. Moreover, there are much better techniques for solving these kinds of problems. Despite millions of years of evolution, ants are not all that efficient. Taking advantage of computers and communication, it is not difficult for us to do better at solving these kinds of problems. I hope you don’t really believe these claims.

      1. The burden of proof isn’t on me. If you make extraordinary claims—that fundamental research on ants is creating significant economic value—then it requires extraordinary proof. An extremely shallow National Geographic article, with zero details, and full of hype, is not proof.

        As to why I say that ants are not all that efficient, I don’t think this is a surprising claim at all. Ants lack the capabilities to solve and act on the solutions to the huge systems studied in operations research. Their competitors are just as limited, so the incentive to squeeze the last half percent out of some cost isn’t there for them—whereas for a modern corporation it absolutely is.

    1. Evidence, Ben. Provide a citation for 1) the inefficiency of ants, and 2) the superior economic performance of non-ant inspired operations to ant-inspired ones. Otherwise your claim is just words on a page.

      The annual revenue stream for Air Liquide- one of the companies that has improved its efficiency by adopting ant algorithms, has an annual revenue stream about three times the entire NSF budget. Southwest Airlines, another user of ant algorithms, has an annual revenue stream about 1.5 times the NSF budget. If either of those companies improves their efficiency by one tenth of one percent by using ant science, then all the government-funded ant research in the world will have paid for itself.

      The amount of money that NSF spends on basic science research (6 billion/year) is really, really piddling in the grand scheme of things. Especially when compared to what we get for it. It’s one of the most productive government expenditures we have.

      update: it seems Air Liquide saves about 6 million dollars a year using ant colony optimization strategies. The link is subscription only, but it reads “We are saving more than 1.5 million dollars per quarter at one of our plants by utilizing optimization techniques in a demanding and changing environment.”

  8. Bah, American scientists should just tell those politicians they are right, give them a palm in the back for their insight, and then let them rename the National Science Foundation to the National Waste Management Foundation. Usefulness will then be self-evident and you will be able to ask for a raise in spending with no need to waste any effort in educating them.

  9. Hmmm… I don’t think McCain is critical of the science per se, but the stimulus bill was meant to produce jobs. On those grounds, it’s okay to be a little critical of some expenditures. Maybe this could also be a ‘teachable moment’ for researchers to articulate the importance of their work to the general public?

  10. Hmmm, maybe Ben has a point.

    “Despite millions of years of evolution, ants are not all that efficient.”

    If that is true, then who needs those darn ants?

    Maybe we should take them on, declare war on all hymenopteons, and McCain could lead the charge. I believe the Republicans would get behind this initiative.

    Who’s with me?

  11. @ Zack. You hit the nail on the head.

    We all need to make an effort to explain science in a friendly, accessible way to the public. It’s not hard to imagine how it can sound crazy (to the uninitiated) to spend millions of dollars on something as “trivial” as ants.

  12. I hate to be caught saying anything nice about a politician, let alone an American (and two Republicans at that!), but I think you ant people are being a bit thin-skinned. Rather than relying on newspaper articles (never a reliable source of information), I tried reading the actual dastardly report.

    If I were David Inouye, I think I’d be ticked off (the anecdotal claim the wildflowers are doing well is specious), but the ants are well hidden at #50 and I doubt most people read past the first couple anyway (which do seem to contain some bone-headed spending, like $2.2 million for a golf course that environmentalists want to shut down as habitat for some endangered herps). I didn’t see any gratuitous slurs on ants or ant people, just the point that almost a million dollars was only buying 3.46 jobs. Not even a mention that these would be short-term jobs and the usual exploitative short-term contracts.

    Doesn’t anyone here remember Proxmire? Coburn and McCain are clearly following his lead, but come off as having more humour and less nastiness than that creep (who I remember as being a Democrat). I think I’m more bothered by the run around the review process – no matter how much Myrmecos protests that this was good.

    1. What run around the review process? The NSF grants that were awarded stimulus money already passed NSF’s regular review process before the stimulus bill was even conceived- it’s just that NSF doesn’t have the money to support all the projects their review panel recommends for funding.

    2. “but the ants are well hidden at #50 and I doubt most people read past the first couple anyway”

      True, but McCain did highlight the ant grants in his speech (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjumEPURnRI).

      The ant grants were then highlighted in at least one national evening news program (CBS evening news), which alone gets 5+million viewers a night.

      Neither of these accounts (which surely must have received more attention than the document itself) mention the jobs-to-money ratio.

      1. I haven’t looked to the networks for news in many years (I read about this at Myrmecos Blog), but if that many people still do, then I guess you have a valid point. No surprise here if the sound-bite mongers rage at ants and ignore the goliath boondoggles.

        McCain, being a senator from Arizona, pretty much had to put something from his state on the list and he had to mention it. I didn’t try to break down the list by states, but I wonder if McCain couldn’t have found some more egregious stimulus pork in AZ? Like with most of the political class, hypocrisy seems well at home with this senator. That said, I still find him less offensive than that sanctimonious prig Proximire (and I still find it hard to believe that two large ant grants were funded in AZ because they were at the top of the unfunded list).

  13. To quote Myrmecos:

    “NSF receives at least four times as many proposals as it can fund. Every year, a great many projects that the reviewers recommend for funding do not receive a penny. So NSF has a backlog of unfunded studies that are deemed excellent. ”

    I’m sure these two grants were not the only worthy grants with a passing rating that got no funds. So why were they deserving of stimulus funds? Because they were in AZ or at the top of the NSF list? I suspect the AZ or some other science-free explanation, but maybe I’m being cynical.

    Full disclosure: I once had an NSF grant rated several points above the cut-off that was not funded and I’m still not happy about it.

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