Fox Attacks Science By Hyping Misleading Claims About National Science Foundation Funds


Following a report released by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) accusing the National Science Foundation (NSF) of "mismanagement of taxpayer funds," Fox News seized on the report making a series of misleading claims about the NSF-funded studies in the report.

CLAIM: NSF Is Wasting Money On Experiment Where Shrimp Ran On A Treadmill

Briggs: "How In The World Do We Spend Half A Million Dollars To Throw A Shrimp On A Treadmill?" During the May 27 broadcast of Fox & Friends, guest co-host Dave Briggs asked, "How in the world do we spend half a million dollars to throw a shrimp on a treadmill?" Earlier in the segment, Briggs stated: "You are paying for all of this in the name of science." [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 5/27/11]

FACT: Shrimp Study Provides Insight Into Bacterial Infections In Marine Life

Like Humans, "If Shrimp With Bacterial Infections Have Less Endurance And Strength, That Affects Their Ability To Survive." From a November 25, 2008, MSNBC article:

Serious science
Jokes aside, [David] Schlock and [Rick] Burnett -- the latter of Grice Marine Laboratory at the College of Charleston, S.C. -- had a serious purpose to their peculiar exercise regimen: to learn how bacterial infections affected a shrimp's endurance. They hit on the idea of putting one on a treadmill. It's an important question, they explained -- one that's actually related to TODAY's recent Ends of the Earth special series, in which the TODAY anchors fanned out across the globe to investigate the strain put by humans on our most precious resource -- water.

Both climate change and the runoff from agriculture and human activities affect the composition of ocean water, which in turn can lead to higher levels of bacteria. If shrimp with bacterial infections have less endurance and strength, that affects their ability to survive.

Just as with sick people, "we found that the diseased shrimp have a more difficult time performing on the treadmill," said Burnett. "The difference is, when you get a cold or an infection, no one tries to eat you."

Additionally, an October 2006 Live Science article points out that "[a] sluggish, sick human is easy to spot. But it's harder to tell when a shrimp is under the weather." Scholnick was later quoted in the Live Science article as saying: "These studies will give us a better idea of how marine animals can perform in their native habitat when faced with increasing pathogens and immunological challenges." [MSNBC, 11/25/08, emphasis in original; Live Science, 10/18/06]

CLAIM: Taxpayer Money Is Being Used To Fund Research Of Robot Built To Fold Laundry

Briggs: "A Million And A Half Dollars For A Robot That Has Learned How To Fold Laundry." Briggs also said: "A million and a half dollars for a robot that has learned how to fold laundry. Are there checks and balances to determine which of this money is wasteful?" [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 5/27/11]

FACT: Study Focused On Testing Robots' Ability "To Handle Deformable Objects" To Expand Use Of Robots' Ability To Aid In Tasks, Like Surgeries

Abbeel: "A Robot Designed To Perform Surgery Has To Handle Deformable Objects." From a interview with University of California at Berkeley scientist Pieter Abbeel:

SmartPlanet: So watching the robot fold laundry was as fun as watching paint dry. Why did you build a robot to fold laundry? It seems a little trivial.

PA: We decided to pick laundry for three reasons.

First, robotics have been successful in structured environments such as manufacturing halls, where repeated execution of the same motions is sufficient for automation. In unstructured environments, robots have been far less successful. Doing laundry required interaction with deformable objects.

Second, we work with surgical robotics. It turns out, a robot designed to perform surgery has to handle deformable objects too.

Third, we saw it as a challenge. Doing laundry was one of the tasks scientists couldn't get robots to do. Before we started working on this project, no comprehensive success story had been reported for the complete end-to-end task of reliably picking up a laundry item and folding it.


SmartPlanet: If you could program a robot to do anything, what would you make it do?

PA: We aren't trying to program a robot for a specific task, but are trying building robots so they have the ability to perform a wide variety of tasks. [SmartPlanet, 4/29/11, emphasis in original]

CLAIM: The NSF Conducted A Study On Jell-O Wrestling

Briggs: "I Think We'd All Like To Hear Why Government Money Is Going To Jell-O Wrestling At The South Pole." Briggs concluded the segment by saying, "I think we'd all like to hear why government money is going to Jell-O wrestling at the South Pole." [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 5/27/11]

FACT: Jell-O Wrestling Was At A Social Event, Not A Scientific Study, And The Organizer Of The Event Was Fired

NSF Grantees Were Not Conducting A Study Into Jell-O Wrestling; Employee Who Organized The Party Was Fired. A 2009 Westword News article reported:

Jell-O wrestling recently became a firing offense -- at least for one employee of Centennial-based Raytheon Polar Services Company, which holds the ten-year contract to staff the United States Antarctic Program.

Last week, the unnamed man was dismissed after employees of the U.S. Inspector General's office, conducting an audit of Antarctica's McMurdo Station, discovered the aftermath of a Jell-O wrestling party. According to news reports, the employee defended himself, saying "No one was equipment was abused or damaged, no one complained to HR, there was no inappropriate behavior, clothing or nudity."

Raytheon Polar Services spokeswoman Valerie Carroll wouldn't confirm the details but said the incident was only "part of the reason" the employee lost his job. [Westword News, 9/12/09]

Posted In
Environment & Science, Research Funding
Fox News Channel
Dave Briggs
FOX & Friends
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