Thursday, October 18, 2012

Senator Coburn Scapegoats Robo-Squirrel

Last spring I introduced readers to Robo-Squirrel, a biorobotic squirrel designed and built by researches at the University of California San Diego to study interactions between California ground squirrels and their biggest predator, the rattlesnake. Robo-Squirrel has helped research scientists and students at the university gain valuable insights into how the squirrels ward off attacks by the snakes using tail flagging and thermoregulation, or heating of the tail by adjusting blood flow.


Now Robo-Squirrel is under attack! US Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahomo) is using the robotic squirrel as an example of wasted federal tax money. The project that Robo-Squirrel was a part of was funded with a grand of $325,000 from the National Science Foundation, which is a federally funded agency. Apparently Senator Coburn thinks of any federal money spent on scientific research for anything other than new weapons for the military as being a waste.

Of course, I'm sure that the Senator was aware that the words "robotic squirrel" would get the attention of the press when he was looking for a project to scapegoat. I'm sure that nowhere in his press release did he mention the benefits of what this research has added to our knowledge of predator-prey interactions, of how species evolve adaptations to help them avoid becoming another species' dinner (but of course I'm sure the Senator, being a Republican, doesn't believe in evolution anyway).

And I'm also sure that Senator Coburn didn't mention that most of the grant money didn't go directly to the building of the robotic squirrel, but was instead used to fund the inclusion of both undergraduate and graduate students in the project. But then again, developing future scientists isn't something that the anti-science Republican party would be concerned with.

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