The worlds of science and politics came together twice on Wednesday afternoon, and the collisions couldn’t have been more diametrically at odds.
Inside the White House, President Barack Obama gathered with young students to celebrate the wonderful possibilities of scientific discovery. The president's inner nerd came out as he spoke about experimentation and inquisitiveness. His annual science fair -- a time to launch marshmallows from makeshift cannons and blow bubbles from wands made with 3D printers -- is as much a showcase of youthful brain power as it is an incentive for proud geeks to enter the field.
On the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, grown-up scientists put on an exhibit of their own, this one illustrating just how unwelcoming that field can be when less sympathetic politicians enter the mix.
In the Russell Senate Office building, a veritable all-star lineup of maligned researchers gathered. Their work would be familiar to anyone who has read the "wastebook" put together by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) or has watched Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) lead a House Science Committee hearing: In the back corner was that guy who watched shrimp run on treadmills; off to the side was the woman who pondered why fat girls can't get dates; in the middle of the room was the person who studied cows in China; near the bar was the man who sent text messages to drunk people; and in the back was the scientist who started a fight club for shrimp (it's always those damn shrimp!).
These researchers had come to Capitol Hill to make the case that their congressional tormentors had gotten their work profoundly wrong. Far from being taxpayer-funded jesters in the world of science, they were doing work of merit and promise. And while they had the resumes and wherewithal to withstand the scrutiny, their worry was that future scientists -- the ones hanging out with Obama -- would look at the crucible and decide to stay far, far away.
"I am rock solid about my research. I know it is very good," said Sheila Patek, an associate professor of biology at Duke University who led the so-called Fight Club-for-shrimp study. "But this wastebook targeted a short paper that was the first paper in my young graduate student's career. ... He is from a long line of firefighters. His father, his uncle, his grandfather. There aren't any other scientists in his family. They are very proud of him. He is extremely civic-minded. I don't think I've had anyone in my lab like that. And this has been crushing for him."
Speaking with deliberate care for each word, Patek couldn't hide how affected she has been by this episode.
"I tell him this is not personal. This is a game. He knows his work is great. It was published in a great journal, and we worked for years to get that science right. But when you're that young and you're getting started and you are not sure if you want to do this hardcore competitive game… that kind of thing is tough," she said. "And he actually wrote me a letter earlier this week. He couldn't say it to me in person. And he wrote about how he was really sorry that his work had brought this attention on the lab."
Contrary to what Flake said in his book, Patek and her graduate student didn't set up a crustacean-themed Fight Club. Nor did the federal government give her $700,000 for that purpose. That sum was for all of her studies.
The focus of the infamous study is actually quite in symmetry with Republican priorities. Patek and her team are looking into the ability of mantis shrimp to generate incredible force without the assistance of outside factors. They're trying to answer questions like: How it is that a shrimp's toothpick-sized hammer can break snail shells in water when humans have to use a larger hammer to do the same in air? A discovery could eventually lead to dramatic changes in human-engineered defense systems. The research already has sparked changes in engineered materials designed to resist impact fracture.
"It is a beautiful and elegant study," Patek said.
Patek was surrounded by researchers with similar gripes about their comic portrayals.
Aletha Akers, an assistant professor of pediatrics at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, was the one who looked at how obesity in adolescence affects sexual behavior. Far from figuring out how to get fat girls laid, she looked at why obese teenagers are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior even though they are less likely than other adolescents to date. Why this mattered was entirely self-evident to Akers: Developing smart intervention strategies could have public health benefits, like decreasing the number of pregnancies before the age of 13.
The National Institutes of Health saw the promise, awarding Akers a $2.5 million, five-year grant, for which she and the NIH have been steadily mocked.
"Sex research can be uncomfortable, and then sexual health is something that can really be uncomfortable for people," she said of her critics.
In a booth across the aisle was Megan Tracy, an assistant professor of anthropology at James Madison University. During a stint with the Peace Corps, she became fascinated by the way the Chinese government regulated its food industries. The National Science Foundation gave her $150,000 to investigate the impact of a poorly regulated milk market in that country, which, sure enough, had congressional critics wondering what good it did the American taxpayers to help China with its dairy. What they overlooked, Tracy noted, is that the United States imported more than $28 billion worth of food from China in 2013.
During a House Science Committee hearing in 2013, Smith called five projects, including Tracy's, essentially indefensible. He then sent a letter to the NSF demanding that it justify the research. It was a shock to science-research advocates who have long argued that peer review, not politics, should determine what research merits grant money.
"It made us a little tentative for a while," Tracy recalled. "Our concern was that there would be ramifications."
David A. Scholnick, an associate professor of biology at Pacific University, stood nearby. His was the experiment in which shrimp took to a treadmill -- perhaps the most widely mocked undertaking of government-funded scientific research in recent memory (Stephen Colbert even got in on the act). What Scholnick has been uncovering, though, is a potentially monumental problem. Warming oceans are causing a growth in certain bacteria in the gills of shrimp, and the damage of that buildup is far greater than previously known.
Considering that Americans eat more than 5 billion pounds of shrimp every year, Scholnick concluded that his work could have a major influence on everything from production to food safety.
Critics accused him of wasting $3 million -- a number he scoffs at. He built the treadmill himself for $47. "I would love to have a grant for $3 million," Scholnick said.
And finally, appropriately standing near the bar, was Frederick Muench, who the conservative Free Beacon said had taken $480,500 from the NIH to "text message drunks." Not surprisingly, Muench has a different way to describe his work: He's been devising an intervention strategy for people who drink heavily but are not yet alcohol-dependent. He has found that specifically adapted text messages can dramatically influence consumption habits. Working at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, he received a three-year NIH grant for $750,000.
He only discovered that his project was being criticized when someone sent a press clipping his way. "Fred," the note read, "I think this is your study."
Remarkably, Muench wasn't the only researcher in attendance who found out that they'd been turned into a punchline only after the joke was delivered. Tracy heard about her role in that 2013 congressional hearing while she was in China-- a reporter from ScienceInsider tipped her off when he reached out for comment. Patek, likewise, only found out about her inclusion in the wastebook when someone from ABC's "Good Morning America" asked for a reaction.
And so, as they made their presentations on Wednesday afternoon to those in attendance -- a mix of science advocates, Hill staffers and reporters, including one from the aforementioned Free Beacon -- these researchers also couldn't help but conjure up visions of what they'd say if their adversaries in Congress were to swing by.
And then, it happened.
Flake entered the room shortly after the session began. He had been invited by the hosts, the Coalition to Promote Research and the Coalition for National Science Funding. But no one actually thought he'd show.
Yet there he was, talking to researchers about their work and even taking a picture with the "shrimp-on-the-treadmill guy" (Scholnick's words, not Flake's). The crowd grew notably more tense. Eyes began following him as he moved booth to booth. Flake is a notoriously thrifty conservative who has long argued that the NIH’s $30 billion budget is bloated and that there are few defensible reasons for why taxpayers are picking up the tabs of these seemingly nonessential studies.
But as he headed for the door, about 20 minutes after having entered, there were signs of optimism from the organizers. Perhaps, one pondered, Flake would be more open-minded, having seen the research up close.
Before he left, I asked Flake what he thought.
"This has been enlightening, and we want to make sure we are accurate. It is a learning process," he said. As for reaching out to the scientists before he deems their research wasteful, all he would say was: "We'll work with them."