Duke professor Sheila Patek recently visited politicians in Washington to clarify misrepresentations of her research.
Patek, an associate professor of biology, studies the mechanics of movement in mantis shrimp and has received federal funding from the National Science Foundation for her work. In December, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake created a “wastebook” aiming to reveal “egregious, outrageous and unnecessary government spending” and claimed that one of Patek’s studies was funded for the staging of a “shrimp fight club.” Patek explained that this portrayal of her research was not factual and said she hoped to use the trip as an opportunity to educate politicians about the value of her work.
“There are a lot of misconceptions among politicians and the public about how the review process works, how scientists get funded,” Patek said. “Essentially there’s this perception that scientists are handed money to do this research instead of realizing that it’s an incredibly intensive competition.”
“Wastebook: The Farce Awakens” was a “Star Wars”-themed publication written by Flake’s staff as a continuation of retired U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s “Wastebook.” The report shows 100 examples of excessive government spending, including federal funding of scientific research. Patek’s work was featured in the document, along with a community college program on wine-making and a science grant partially used to fund a life-size Pac-Man game.
“During the Ebola outbreak, it was tough to hear the director of [National Institute of Health] say there would’ve been a vaccine if Congress hadn’t slowed spending, and then see millions of dollars funneled to studies that just don’t pass the laugh test,” Flake told the Washington Free Beacon. “I believe that taxpayers and researchers alike would benefit from more transparency when it comes to how and why research funds are being spent.”
Patek said that the Wastebook is not a fact-based document and that the motives behind the report are not new, noting that politicians have a record of misconstruing scientific research to prove a political point and that valuable work from her colleagues has also been targeted in the past.
She also expressed frustration with how the information from the Wastebook was used, given that the “shrimp fight club” portrayal was picked up by national media outlets such as ABC News and Good Morning America and was reflected in congressional budget proposals.
“This is a political stunt,” Patek said. “These folks do not read the papers, they don’t understand what the science is about; they’re looking for some way to get the press to engage on a pretty goofy thing.”
In a March 14 article for Duke Magazine, Patek wrote that her research does not involve setting up a fight club for mantis shrimp, as the Wastebook suggested. She explained in the article that her lab’s findings have numerous practical applications, including making way for engineers to develop fracture-resistant materials—based on her lab’s findings about the performance of the shrimp’s hammer-like claws—and informing the development of ultra-rapid aquatic systems.
In an effort to combat coverage of the Wastebook’s claims, Patek accepted an opportunity to travel to Capitol Hill and meet with Flake, Roland Foster—a legislative director for Coburn who wrote the “Star Wars”-themed Wastebook—and other legislators. At a poster session organized by the Coalition for the Life Sciences, Patek and 10 other scientists named in the Wastebook explained their research to politicians.
Patek said she was pleased with the responses to her work and noted that the atmosphere of the event was “receptive and collegial.”
“I do feel like we made a difference, I was actually really surprised,” she said. “I feel like they listened and I think they walked away with a better understanding of why this research that we do is important and how it’s relevant to the United States.”
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Patek added that the Wastebook’s portrayal of her work may have actually been an unintended consequence of increased efforts to publicize her study’s findings.
“In a bizarre twist, it’s a bit of a punishment for us doing our very best to communicate our research to a broader audience,” Patek said. “There’s no question that they heard about this study through the science press and through the work we do with the press to communicate what we do to the public.”
Patek said that although the Wastebook was distressing, ultimately it will not prevent her from pursuing a strategy of public engagement. She noted that she has since received many emails of support from members of the public who are excited about her work.