Screenshot from a video demonstrating the "shrimp on a treadmill" research. Credit: College of Charleston Grice Marine Laboratory

The science project became a major emblem of “silly” science: the placement of shrimp on a tiny treadmill. Some laughed, others took it as a call to prioritize federal funding for science research that could produce results for the taxpayer.

Now, a bill proposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) would upend the way grants are released through the National Science Foundation. The “BASIC Research Act” (S.1973) would transfer the current grant evaluation process in the National Science Foundation to an outside “Officer of the Special Inspector General and Taxpayer Advocate for Research.”

Paul, known for his libertarian leanings, chaired a Senate subcommittee meeting last Thursday entitled “Broken Beakers: Federal Support for Research.” He cited the shrimp research, along with other projects about students preferring food that hadn’t been sneezed on in a buffet line, and the gambling habits of people in Uganda.

“That’s absurd,” said Paul. “So how does this happen? More accurately, how does this continue to happen?”

The new oversight agency that Paul is proposing would randomly select from the NSF’s grant applications, and gauge their worth on what they could bring to the taxpayer. In fact, that proposed new group would include a layman “taxpayer advocate for research,” and a scientist whose expertise is unrelated to the field being considered.

Three expert witnesses testified to the current state of the scientific reward system. Brian Nosek, of the University of Virginia and also the Center for Open Science, told the senators that more openness in the scientific evaluation would increase the “ROI” to Americans.

“The culture of incentives for scientists sometimes undercuts the core values of transparency and reproducibility,” said Nosek.

Terence Kealey of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute said unequivocally there is “simply no evidence that economic growth, or technological growth that leads to economic growth, is in any way benefitted by the federal funding of science.”

The bill, introduced last week, is only sponsored by Paul. But even on the subcommittee there were dissenting voices, with varying degrees of support.

“I’m not opposed to research. I’m grateful every time I pick up my cell phone or visit a doctor’s office for research in the past,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “The question is federal-funded research, and the national benefit of that.”

Scientific research is nothing less than the “seedcorn of innovations and new discoveries,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.). Federal funding made the Internet, GPS satellites, and the Human Genome Project possible – all breakthroughs that have been used by virtually every American in the 21st century, said Peters.

“While certain basic research projects that receive federal funding certainly have some very silly-sounding titles, further examination may reveal the true scientific merit and potential broader impacts of that work,” said Peters.

Indeed, the shrimp on a treadmill served a purpose, the researchers said. The first treadmill, which used up virtually no part of the $500,000 research grant, was used to determine shrimp mobility with differing degrees of water quality – something potentially important for the seafood economy.

The Thursday hearing broke off early for important votes on tax-reform issues.