A squirrelly waste of cash

A squirrelly waste of cash

November 12th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

In October, Sen, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., released his annual "Wastebook" publication, which highlighted some of the most egregious examples of federal spending. Included among the 100 wasteful projects was a $325,000 grant awarded to San Diego State University (SDSU) and the University of California, Davis to develop a "RoboSquirrel."

If you're not familiar with the concept of a "RoboSquirrel," you're not alone. According to the Daily Caller, the purpose of the scheme is to observe and learn from the interactions of squirrels and rattlesnakes in the wilderness.

A reasonable person may likely think this objective could be accomplished by watching the animals interact on their own, but that's apparently not good enough for the California scientists. Instead, $325,000 of taxpayers' money was spent to build a RoboSquirrel that could "...mimic the way squirrels fend off snake attacks by rapidly wagging their tails." Or so the researchers tell us.

In an attempt to justify this unjustifiable waste, SDSU assistant professor of biology Rulon Clark told The Daily Aztec, San Diego State's newspaper, that "[s]upport of this research program goes toward [the students'] graduate degrees and trains the next generation of scientists and engineers." Clark, who was one of the faculty scientists leading the RoboSquirrel project continued, "If you cut funding to basic science, you are cutting the opportunities of the student that can't be taught in the classroom."

Clark's statement may sound logical, if we're talking about the university spending its own dollars. But we're talking about federal lawmakers taking money from the people in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina who read this paper and giving it to some lab rats in California to build a $325,000 robotic squirrel!

Universities can choose to spend their money as they see fit (even their massive government subsidies). However, universities shouldn't be in the business of snatching additional federal handouts for goofy pork project.

The real culprit here isn't the university or the scientists. It's the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal bureaucracy responsible for throwing taxpayers' hard-earned dollars at ridiculous projects like the RoboSquirrel.

The National Science Foundation's website describes itself as "an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 'to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense...'" The obvious question is how building a RoboSquirrel could possibly fall into even this extremely broad role. The answer is, it doesn't.

The bureaucracy's website goes on to say that the "NSF also funds equipment that is needed by scientists and engineers but is often too expensive for any one group or researcher to afford. Examples of such major research equipment include giant optical and radio telescopes, Antarctic research sites, high-end computer facilities and ultra-high-speed connections, ships for ocean research, sensitive detectors of very subtle physical phenomena and gravitational wave observatories." Hmmm. No mention of the RoboSquirrel as something the NSF should be funding.

The RoboSquirrel project clearly falls far short of the mission and objectives described by that National Science Foundation. We can all learn from the RoboSquirrel, but the lesson doesn't have anything to do how squirrels fend off snakes.

The lesson this unfortunate waste of taxpayer dollars teaches is that federal money should never be used to fund pork projects projects that don't benefit to the broader population. To be clear, SDSU is free to use its research dollars however it likes; if it finds studying and creating a RoboSquirrel is a project worthy of funding, more power to them. But that does not make it a project that taxpayers' dollars should be used to fund.