On Robotics, Viral Videos and Fruit Fly Genitalia – Senator Coburn Missing The Point

Posted on June 12, 2011



This post from the Computer Education Blog brought to my attention a recent report by Senator Tom Coburn (OK) taking aim at several NSF-funded research projects. The particular focus on the Computer Ed. Blog is that the report takes aim at a recent SIGCSE 2011 robotic hoedown. Coburn’s report can be seen here. And the SIGCSE’s response can be seen here.

As with everything, the truth is somewhere in between. Several of the NSF-funded projects listed by Coburn really raise an eyebrow. For example, why the NSF – a U.S. agency – is footing the bill for tourism research in cities of Norway for example. More importantly, why a US-based educational facility would have the galls to request US funds – in this time of dire economic need – for such a research. That is beyond me.

I could understand NSF-funded research overseas for, as an example, archaeological research the pyramids in Egypt, or primate research in the Uganda highlands, social anthropology research in the Amazons or Papua New Guinea, or aquaculture research in, oh, I dunno, the Mekong Delta.

But tourist research in Norway? How can researches justify that? And how the NFS funded the bill?

On the other hand, the report listed three projects that, at least in my eyes are legitimate:

  1. A SIGCSE robotic “hoedown” intended to introduce HS instructors to low-cost robotics so that they can use them in the AP CS curriculum.
  2. A research on the impact of youtube on the 2008 elections (and investigation on what certain viral campaigns are successful and how to repeat that success)?
  3. A research study on how the complexities of the male genitalia of fruit flies impacted their sexual relations.

I mean, seriously, do we actually have to explain why these three (specifically #2), in 2011? Taking an aim at these three reminds me of the late Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) famous “It’s a series of tubes” tirade over net neutrality.

The first NSF-funded event  (the SIGCSE robotic showcase) is obviously the way to go with the aim of introducing robotics (and with it fundamentals of CS, CE and EE) to students at the HS level. With so much calls to increase the number of STEM graduates, NSF robotic hoedowns and shows would be one of the means to achieve that goal, a reasonable mind would think.

The second study (youtube impact in the 2008 elections) is one of tremendous important in this age with the impact of cheap, instantaneous user-powered film publishing still unknown (and untapped) in e-commerce, e-marketing, knowledge dissemination and politics.

The third study (fruit fly male genitalia), though pursued perhaps by might seem as just pure academic curiosity, the results can be used in other important areas like pest control. Why study that on fruit flies instead of on cockroaches? Because fruit flies are already one of the standard animals (alongside c. elegans, pigs and guinea pigs among others) for biological studies.

There is a lot of truth in Coburn’s report. There is waste. But it seems that he simply went the way of the shotgun, splashing whatever that escaped his immediate understanding, including valid research.

Senators have tremendous power that, when yielded, can destroy entire research projects (or at the least, tarnish researchers’ work and reputation.) It is a delicate balance that exists between raising a questions and spreading a rumor along the halls of power. This is not a case of me using an appeal to fear/consequences fallacy to make my point in this. It is a case of pointing out that Senator Coburn logical failing in creating his report, a case of blatant generalization without considering the details of each case.

I would have hoped that a senator (a person with great influential power) would do a little bit more research BEFORE publishing a report for public and congressional consumption questioning the validity of NSF-funded research.

Next time that Senator Coburn’s (and those of like mentality) raises his critical shotgun, he should pick up his cell phone and look at it with wonder. That thing and a lot of the technology that makes it work originally came from black hole research (something which usability is still questioned by the Luddite masses.)