- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

There’s something about fish on a treadmill that seems to get the National Science Foundation excited, according to the latest edition of Wastebook, a compendium of questionable spending decisions.

The 2017 edition, released Tuesday, counts three separate fish projects that involve taxpayers paying to have fish exercise on treadmill-style contraptions, testing everything from swimming ability to oxygen. One of the tests, funded by a $560,000 NSF grant, even has Mudskippers running outside of the water.

It’s a small part of the $5 billion in waste spread across 50 projects identified in the Wastebook, the annual compendium started by former Sen. Tom Coburn and now being run by Sen. Jeff Flake.

Among the lamer spending the Arizona Republican spotted this year was millions of dollars to investigate why people fear the dentist, $20 million paid to New Jersey highway contractors while their road project was on hold, and robots bought by the Veterans Affairs Department that went unused for two years, then were sold back to the manufacturer for a 15,000 percent loss.

“Government boondoggles come in all shapes and sizes and pop up just about everywhere,” Mr. Flake said, identifying projects in 25 different agencies.

Mr. Flake said that at a time of tight budgets, the government needs to do a better job of controlling where the money is going. He said that’s particularly true after a 2016 that saw the National Institutes of Health complain about a lack of funding for studying the Zika virus — but then paid to study why girls gravitate toward Barbie Dolls and boys were attracted to Transformers toys.

Meanwhile the Agriculture Department paid liquor stores to update their lighting, as part of a rural energy program.

The department was unable to provide a comment in time for this article.

But one research advocate challenged Mr. Flake when he unveiled the latest Wastebook at the Heritage Foundation early Tuesday morning.

Pat Kobor, a lobbyist for the American Psychological Association, accused the senator of ignoring the value of the science research he was lampooning.

“Publications like this are really at best incomplete, on the research projects, and at worst misleading and disingenuous,” she said. “There’s context to all this research that you don’t leave room to go into detail, and worse, you don’t really ask the scientists to help explain or justify the work.”

Mr. Flake said he’s always open to scientists justifying their work, but said decisions have to be made and projects don’t deserve to be funded by taxpayers’ money just because they answer interesting questions.

That’s particularly true for the fish studies, where Mr. Flake questioned researchers’ need to test how long a Mudskipper could run outside of the water.

Mudskippers, who have the ability to live outside of water for a period of time and can use their fins like legs, were run to exhaustion on a terrestrial treadmill — and prodded along when they seemed reluctant. The fish were “exercised to exhaustion,” given two days to recover, then tested again.

The goal was to find out whether they ran better in higher levels of oxygen. The researchers said they did, and said that could be a sign that increasing levels of oxygen sped the leap of animals from water to land.

The lead researcher for the project didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Washington Times.

Mr. Flake counted at two other ongoing NSF grants that also use treadmill-style devices. They are reminders of one of the most iconic Wastebook items from years past, when researchers tested shrimp on a treadmill.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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