Do Republicans Hate Antweb?

Apparently they do:

The Obama administration has credited its $862 billion stimulus program with pulling the economy out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. But a new report by two Republican senators argues the stimulus is riddled with wasteful projects that do not create jobs.

The report, released by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and John McCain, R-Ariz., highlights 100 stimulus projects that they say have “questionable goals,” are “being mismanaged or were poorly planned” and are even “costing jobs and hurting small businesses.”

…Go a little further down the list and you’ll find even bigger spending. The California Academy of Sciences is receiving nearly $1 million in stimulus funds to send researchers to the Southwest Indian Ocean Islands and East Africa to capture, photograph and analyze thousands of exotic ants.

The Senators’ report is not surprising. It’s the latest volley in a predictably cynical strategy to sway voter opinion by playing to public illiteracy. The report contains no serious analysis of cost and benefit for any of the projects- it’s just a loose collection of titles that caused some junior GOP staffers to snicker. There’s no substance, just purely political manipulation.

The ant grant in question supports Antweb and will shore up the collections of one of the world’s largest and most widely-used biodiversity informatics projects, salarying several people, and answering some key questions about how ant species- including pest ant species- move about the globe.

One of Antweb's 30,000 images

The fundamental flaw in the Senators’ ploy is the unstated assumption that grant money, once awarded, just disappears into the wind with nary a penny touching the American economy. But that’s plain ridiculous.

The reason these projects are expensive is that they pay people to do work. The bulk of most basic science grants goes into salary, either budgeted directly in the project or filtered indirectly through institutional overhead. Antweb is going to hire technicians. Those folks will rent apartments and shop at local stores. American Airlines will receive business ferrying people to field sites. Bioquip will sell curation equipment.

The fact that ants make some juvenile political operatives giggle isn’t really an argument one way or another. It’s just noise.

Update: Republicans also hate the NCSU insect blog, making fun of NCSU entomology because it “only gets 44 visitors a year” while failing to note that NCSU entomology is a research institution- an important one at that- rather than an exhibit.

13 thoughts on “Do Republicans Hate Antweb?”

  1. Pingback: Yes, Republicans Hate Me. « The Skeptical Moth

  2. Dear McCain and Coburn,
    Produce a real, transparent audit of this country’s bloated defense budget, then we’ll talk about the peanuts we spend on basic life sciences research – for which I think you will find the cost/benefit ratio a good deal more favorable than military spending. Waste, indeed.

  3. Piotr Naskrecki

    There is no more fool-proof strategy in politics than playing up to the ignorance and fears of the populace, and one of the dominant ones is that of being “tricked” by the “eggheads.” Pointing out federal funding being spent on projects the significance of which your average Sarah or John cannot comprehend is an old tactic – in the 60s NSF was criticized for funding a grant to study the genetics of frogs’ hybridization (frogs! can you imagine?), in the 70s there was an outcry that Dan Otte was awarded a grant to study crickets in Australia, and so it is not at all surprising that now came the time for ants. What’s next, federal funding to study bacteria? You cannot even see those damned things, how can they possibly be important?

  4. Terry Smiljanich

    Fight back against know-nothing politicians! Based on this story I checked out the NCSU insect blog and thought it was pretty darned good, so I added it to my Google page. With more publicity like this, the Republicans might help NCSU shoot up in numbers of visitors. Unintended consequences. Now if we can just get them to criticize Myrmecos, Alex Wild will rule!

  5. It’s a weird choice to highlight as an attack on the stimulus, given AntWeb’s clear outreach potential: people might not understand the importance of collections (NCSU attack), but a website rich with photos and maps, plus discovery of new species, should have appeal. Aren’t broader impacts statements intended, in part, to help the public understand why certain grants are funded?

    In any case, I’ve started a campaign to get Brian Fisher on the Colbert Report (see forum thread). The Colbert Report has a broad, if left wing, audience, and the show has highlighted taxonomy multiple times (was Proceratium google ever on the show?). I don’t know if more posts on the forum would help with this.

  6. Sorry, Alex, but Republicans have no monopoly with an anti-intellectual meme.

    Recall Germany’s National Socialist (Nazi) book burnings, or China’a Cultural Revolution or Great Leap Forward. At least we aren’t gassing/starving the scientists at the moment.

    Try not to “pigeonhole” a normal curve or be accused of anti-scientific bias of your own.

      1. BS – use the person’s name and associate that person’s party affiliation who arbitrarily attacks funding for entomology – fine. Say ‘Republicans’ and you invoke the general = Fallacy of Accident or Hasty Generalization: argues from a special case to a general rule.

        If I were a republican, I would be pissed. Since I am only a conservative, I only make observations about your logic or lack thereof. A scientist should know better – the exception makes the rule and there are plenty of republicans who support public funding for the sciences.

        You would do well to recall that continuous feckless overspending by government (a tendency of some democrats [note the required qualification]) eventually means ALL public science funding will end up in the toilet since there won’t be any money left to spend on such ‘frivolities’.

        1. Terry Smiljanich

          My aren’t we sensitive? As long as we’re talking logical fallacies:
          pointing out the vacuous stupidity of a few Republicans = Republicans have a monopoly on anti-intellectualism. Good work. And let’s not forget to drag Nazis into the discussion. Who was the politician who used to give out annual awards for wasted federal money, and always included a few valid science projects because they sounded funny to him? A liberal Democrat, as I recall (William Proxmire?), but it couldn’t have been, since Republicans hold a monopoly on the subject.

  7. I really am tired of the GOP’s antics… too tired to even vehemently criticize them. All I can say is that I can understand why even the nation’s leaders can’t fathom the importance of science when everyone these days has this notion that people who seem to know more than they do are distant, elitist, and out to get the ‘average Joe’. I remember reading an article about anti-intellectualism in America in English class, contrasting Western values of athleticism and rebellion with Eastern values of hard work and good grades. I don’t want to be divisive; this incident is just a symptom of an underlying epidemic in how we view intellectualism.

    Heres an article in the NYT about the same thing in the Kagan confirmation hearings: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/magazine/11fob-wwln-t.html?scp=7&sq=Kagan%20hearings&st=cse

  8. As an Oklahoma conservative and Tom Coburn supporter I agree that Senator Coburn is wrong in lumping meritorious scientific research such as Antweb in with truly wasteful and ridiculous pork spending.

    Also troubling to me is the new trend where level of merit is assigned to scientific research based on money spent versus jobs created. Since when is scientific research worthy of funding only when it produces X number of jobs?

  9. What’s weird is that the Senators’ report doesn’t actually say that Brian’s research is not worthwhile. It’s as if the word “ant” is all that’s necessary:

    “The California Academy of Sciences is receiving nearly $2 million to
    send researchers to the Southwest Indian Ocean Islands and east
    Africa, to capture, photograph, and analyze thousands of exotic ants.52
    The photographs of the ants – over 3,000 species’ worth, according to
    the grant proposal – will be posted on AntWeb, a website devoted to
    organizing and displaying pictures and information on the world’s
    thousands of ant species.

    “The project’s goals are, to the lay person, both laudable and arcane: In
    addition to “foster[ing]…a large pool of ant taxonomists,” it also strives
    to document “the vast majority of ant species known from [Africa].”
    “[Ants] give us back the most data on the environment than any other
    group. Their life cycle is shorter, they change very quickly,” says the
    project’s Principal Investigator in a promotional article on the
    Academy’s website. “Everyone has run into ants . . . now we need to
    listen to them.”

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