Criticizing President Obama's new jobs plan, Fox Business host David Asman complained that the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act “gave people $45 to tell them how much malt liquor they were drinking and how much pot they were smoking.” He also brought up a stimulus-funded study that researched “the sex lives of female college freshmen,” adding that such a study “should be left up to the parents rather than government researchers.” However, both of Asman's examples were contained in a 2009 Republican report blasting the stimulus and its billions in supposed wasteful projects.
Citing a report issued by Republican Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn, The Hill reported in December 2009:
GOP senators on Tuesday highlighted “pure waste” in the billions of stimulus funds spent this year, including money for fossil research in Argentina, puppet shows and to protect cruise ships from terrorist attacks.
The Obama administration has spent $217 billion in economic stimulus funds as of the end of November. A new report issued Tuesday by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, concluded that $7 billion was wasted or mismanaged.
The State University of New York at Buffalo won $390,000 to study young adults who drink malt liquor and smoke marijuana. The National Institutes of Health got $219,000 in funds to study whether female college students are more likely to “hook up” after drinking alcohol.
Highlighting these examples of scientific research in such a manner misses the point, however. PolitiFact reported that the study on female college students' sexual habits was “a public health study,” and the findings would be used to “to inform parents, educators, medical and public health professionals, and to guide the development of more effective health promotion and disease prevention programs.”
The psychologist directing the malt liquor and marijuana research stated that the project did not simply study the effects of the substances in conjunction with one another, “she examine[d] methods by which public health officials can limit [the] use” of those substances.
Science writer Chris Mooney had this to say about the projects and the effect of highlighting them for ridicule:
McCain and Coburn also target various medical studies: For instance, a malt liquor and marijuana study in Buffalo, New York, funded to the tune of $389,357. Coburn and McCain turn this entirely legitimate public health research inquiry into a joke, simply because the substances may have particular lifestyles associated with them. But so what? Young adults abuse these substances, and it is quite legitimate to study the associated effects. This is particularly the case for malt liquor, as the grant reports that it has received little research attention. Understanding early alcohol abuse patterns, as well as the deaths and injuries that result from drug abuse among young men, are clear public health benefits. Moreover, as with any major medical study, it's inevitable that jobs will be created to support the work.
Something similar goes for another NIH-funded study on sexual behaviors of young women in college, determining whether they are more likely to “hook up” after drinking -- once again, public health research that is greeted by McCain and Coburn only with a sneer.
In the end, McCain and Coburn can certainly enjoy their yucks at the expense of science. But there's virtually no substance to their complaints. In each instance, closer investigation reveals that the research is legitimate science. Moreover, McCain and Coburn never show that a particular grant fails to stimulate the economy, either -- they just assume as much, even though scientific grants are known to create jobs.