Conservatives vs. Research

A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 28 2013 3:28 PM

The Conservative War on Scientific Research

Robot squirrel

NSF photo

The National Republican Campaign Committee is very upset today about wasteful government spending, including "a total of $325,000 to fund research on robotic squirrels." Clearly if there's money in the budget to fund robot squirrels and "nearly $1 million for NASA to develop a 'Mars Menu,' " there's no reason the Obama administration can't agree to an all-cuts approach to replacing sequestration cuts.

Conservatives certainly enjoy going back to this well. Most people agree that one of the most important things the federal government can do is fund basic scientific research. Knowledge is a public good—nonrival and nonexcludable so it's very important to find ways to produce it. Fortunately, philanthropists are happy to fund a lot of research with their charitable dollars. Also fortunately the government ponies up a lot of money for it. But the nature of a scientific research program is that it necessarily involves going a bit beyond the ordinary and conventional. Therefore enterprising political messaging operatives can scroll through a list of scientific research funding grants and find a few that sound funny and mock them.


In this particular case what's happening is that the National Science Foundation is supporting Dr. Rulan Clark's research into the behavior of rattlesnakes. It seems that we actually don't know very much about rattlesnake behavior in general. The robotic squirrels are to help understand a particular aspect of predator-prey interaction in which the snake tries to kill the squirrel, and the squirrel tries to avoid getting killed.

Do we need to spend money on this? Obviously not. The world has been ignorant about the details of rattlesnake behavior for a long time, and if we halt all further progress in rattlesnake science, life will pretty much proceed the way it always has. On the other hand, you never really know what the benefits of understanding something new will be until you actually do the work and understand it. So that's your rattlesnake grant. The "Mars Menu" thing is even more obvious. Several years back NASA was directed to work on a manned mission to Mars, and figuring out what the astronauts should eat on such a mission is clearly going to have to be part of the work. Personally, I'm a bit skeptical about the value of manned space flight overall, and if we wanted to redirect all that money to basic scientific research (more robot squirrels in other words), I wouldn't have a huge problem with that. But canceling all NASA manned spaceflight undertakings is clearly a bigger argument than just saying "Mars Menu" and laughing.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.