I was recently exposed to another stupid political commercial, this one ridiculing the government spending $500,000 to "see how sick shrimp performed on a treadmill". I've seen a lot of knee-jerk reaction on this, but I'm not the kind to react without investigation.

Here's what I found.

Shrimp on Treadmills, and the Men Who Study Them

Dr. David Scholnick was the researcher in question. He actually does inject shrimp with malaria to see how it affects their performance. He actually did build an underwater treadmill to investigate.

So far, the report looks factual. Of course, they don't mention that shrimp are anaerobic. As you recall, we use aerobic metabolism for most tasks, reserving anaerobic performance only for short bursts and feats of strength. We don't know much about anaerobic metabolism in other species.

Or at least, we didn't, until Dr. Scholnick built his treadmill. And he found something surprising: the healthy shrimp literally ran for hours on the treadmill. Champion marathoners, they are. Sick ones, not so much... as you might have expected. But you expected anaerobic performance to only be good for short bursts and feats of strength, like in humans. Now we know not only that invertebrates (well, crustaceans. Well... penaeid shrimp, anyway) have phenomenal anaerobic endurance, but also that it's affected by disease (well, malaria. And wearing backpacks) in a pretty extreme way.

The Importance of Sick Shrimp Performance

So, who cares? Well, you should. Because shrimp affect the ecology. Since the BP oil spill, everyone seems to care a lot about the Gulf, and particularly Louisiana. You know where they have a lot of shrimp? Louisiana. And with the temperatures rising and oxygen content dropping, shrimp are a lot more susceptible to infection. And now we know that makes them a lot more susceptible to predation, too.

Once the predators have feasted on the easily-obtained sick shrimp, they'll have a little baby boom. Then there won't be as many shrimp next year. That'll lead to a bunch of starving predators, as well as a proliferation of whatever the shrimp used to eat (large algae, I believe).

Not to mention that these are the shrimp we eat. Maybe we should know a little bit about how they work.

Crunching the Numbers

Was it worth the $500,000 to know all this?

Well, first off, was it really $500,000? I looked up Dr. David Scholnick at Pacific University, then I found the treadmill shrimp project in the NSF awards database. Turns out it was $559,681. And performed OVER A PERIOD OF FIVE YEARS.

I have a few friends who live off of grants, so I asked them where all the money goes. First off, the university takes a cut, called "overhead", of about 20%. You get to use the rest of the money for the equipment, travel, and experimenters (typically undergrad students). Usually the students don't have to pay payroll taxes, but they don't get paid much, either. None goes to the professor: he's expected to be paid by the school.

Since he's working with students from four universities, you might be tempted to do what I did: shoot for a round number and divide by four. That results in $25,000 per year per experimenter. Pretty measly to keep four kids off the street, not to mention participating in actual scientific progress.

BUT NO! You'd be wrong again! You didn't actually look at the grant, did you? It's not just for shrimp treadmills. It's for a lot of other experimentation, too. Six people have published three papers in the past two years alone. One of them dealt with shrimp; the other two were about blue crabs. So the shrimp treadmills are a very minor part of a multi-person team doing a lot of research. When they needed to measure the performance -- and its changes -- in shrimp, they turned to Dr. Scholnick, who got barely enough money to perform his experiment.

In the end, the shrimp treadmill experiments couldn't have been more than a tiny chunk of the money. Where's your outrage now, Internet?

Better Uses

So, when faced with the probability that they're exploding over nothing, the average person will backpedal furiously and contend that their real issue is that the money could have been better spent on something else.

Seriously, we're talking about species that are ecologically and economically important. We could be talking about losing shrimp, crab, and anything in their food web from your diet. We could be talking about algae overrunning the entire coast of Louisiana. We're definitely talking about employing at least four people for five years. What else would you want to spend that money on?

What, indeed? I couldn't find data for rejected proposals, but I did find the NSF 2009 Review Process PDF. Right there in Appendix A, it shows you how many proposals they received, and how many they awarded. If you actually looked at the grant, you'd see it was awarded by the BIO department in 2007. If you know how to use a table, you can easily find that there was a 19% success rate that year.

So only 1 out of every 5 projects was funded. For this project, there were four others that just didn't seem as worthy to a panel of independent reviewers, the board of directors, and the project manager. And there are a lot of criteria to pass, too; they don't just hand you a half-million dollars on the basis of a flashy PowerPoint presentation. Just read the review process document to find out how tough it is. Or talk to a researcher from one of the 80% of projects that were rejected.

Yeah, I'm not convinced there was anything better to spend the money on. The NSF does better vetting on these than you do buying your food, clothes, or... well, just about anything, really.


Wow, it's easy to make science sound outrageous. It may even get Senator Coburn elected. But when you actually examine what you're talking about, you see it's not so frivolous. Closer to beneficial. Maybe even necessary.

Unfortunately, it takes a long time to actually find the facts. Lots more time and effort than just getting outraged.

You should stop accepting the things politicians say. Even in ads. You don't need to investigate thoroughly, but you should at least insist that the people who make outrageous claims prove them. If "show me the money" were more prevalent than "yeah, that sounds like the kind of thing our government would do", we'd be a lot better off.