Psychologist Anne McLaughlin can’t remember exactly how she found out that her work on improving older adults’ cognitive function with video games had been featured in Summertime Blues, a 2010 report by senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and John McCain (R-AZ) about projects that “give taxpayers the blues.” Maybe it was a colleague who came to her office to tell her, or an email from a reporter asking for comment—she’s not sure. But McLaughlin does remember how scared she was. “I had just started my job as a professor; I was barely out of grad school. I thought, ‘Oh no, it’s the end of my career; they’re going to fire me, or I’m not going to get rehired after my third-year review,’” she says.
McLaughlin—who, 7 years later, still has her job at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where she’s now an associate professor—is just one of the dozens of researchers whose projects have been featured in a series of “Wastebook” reports. Since 2010, the offices of U.S. senators have compiled and released these reports to highlight federally funded projects that they consider wasteful or frivolous. And with the current administration’s proposed budget cuts to federal science programs, more scientists may find their research in the crosshairs, scrutinized by politicians and the general public.
Scientists might initially worry that a Wastebook mention is a threat to earning tenure, or that it could affect one’s funding prospects or professional reputation. But the researchers that Science Careers spoke with all said that, as far as they could tell, inclusion in the Wastebook reports had no negative effects on their careers, and may even offer some unexpected silver linings. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though, McLaughlin says. “You know how you want to tell teenagers that whatever they’re experiencing is not that bad, and it’ll be over soon—but you also know that when you’re a teenager, there’s no way that would have made you feel better? That’s kind of how I feel about it.”
The risk of unconventional research
If you find yourself in the Wastebook, your first question might be, “Why me?” Wastebook compilers’ offices have not shed any light on their process for selecting projects, but researchers have their theories. Marine biologist David Scholnick believes that work with a zany edge makes for an easy political target. His work featuring a homemade shrimp treadmill was first held up as an example of government wastefulness in Coburn’s 2011 report The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope, and it has since been mentioned in multiple Wastebooks and congressional meetings. Scholnick, a professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, built the treadmill to study shrimp’s ability to fight off disease, which could inform seafood safety standards. But a novel approach to basic research can make for an easy punching bag, Scholnick says. “So much of what [researchers] do could be targeted and misrepresented as silly or wasteful because we’re trying to understand complex things no one knows yet. You have to do some bizarre things from time to time.”
Scholnick also notes that his study and others in the Wastebook cover subjects that are easy for nonscientists to relate to. “If it’s a funny looking marine animal moving around, or anything on a treadmill, people are familiar with that,” and therefore feel qualified to decide whether it’s valuable, he says. (Other animals-on-treadmill studies that have been mentioned in Wastebooks include research on mountain lions, monkeys, and fish.) Likewise, McLaughlin suspects that Wastebook compilers were drawn to two unconventional words in her National Science Foundation (NSF) grant abstract: video games. “If I had written a grant about ‘older people using complex electronic tasks and motivational reward systems,’ it never would have made it in,” she says.
But if using an opaque phrase like “complex electronic tasks” would throw off Wastebook compilers, it would also be inscrutable to others outside the research realm, says McLaughlin, who strives to communicate her science to a variety of audiences. “A lot of people are interested because the word ‘video game’ is in there,” she says. She continues to use the buzzword, even if it attracts unwanted attention. Impenetrable academic writing—which is sometimes unavoidable in grant applications and journal articles—can also contribute to Wastebook compilers misinterpreting a research project’s question, outcomes, and funding sources.
So, McLaughlin says, she’s now more careful about how she describes her work. For instance, she makes it clear that video games are part of her research methodology, not the focus. She is also considering using more precise language to describe her funding after her second appearance in the Wastebook, in 2012, cited work that was funded by a small grant from her institution, not the federal government. The Wastebook misreported that the project was part of a $1.2 million NSF grant, most likely because the work was included on a conference poster about multiple projects that included the NSF grant in the acknowledgments section. A phrase like “portions of this project were funded by X” could have helped emphasize that not all grants listed in an acknowledgements section funded all projects, she notes.
Communicating clearly can help preempt misinterpretation, but it’s not an ironclad defense against another player that might contribute to catching a Wastebook compiler’s eye: the media. That’s the theory from paleontologist Julia Clarke, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Of the many media outlets that covered her paper detailing her discovery of the oldest known vocal organ specimen found in an ancient bird fossil, several took liberties in their interpretations of its results. Some reported that the study had revealed what dinosaurs sounded like, or proved Jurassic Park wrong. Not long after, the project ended up in the 2016 Wastebook, which misreported that the study found that dinosaurs didn’t sing, alongside a photo of cartoon dinosaur Barney.
Clarke doesn’t feel she could have done anything differently to avoid questionable interpretations of her research, and she advises scientists to recognize that they’ll never have full control over the narrative about their work. “If your science relates to things people care about, the media will cover it,” she says. “Any time people get excited, or are compelled to know more, that’s a good thing.” But the more media attention a scientist receives, the more potential for misinterpretation, she continues. “If it captures the imagination, it’s like a game of telephone: In the retelling, it turns into something you didn’t originally say. That can be exceptionally frustrating.”
Despite that frustration, landing in the Wastebook didn’t push any of the scientists Science Careers spoke with to shy away from their lines of research. And McLaughlin remains dedicated to communicating her findings to the public. “Science outreach is more important than avoiding conflict,” she says.
Mounting a response
Even the most dedicated researchers might need a little moral support after being highlighted as wasteful. The first time McLaughlin found out her work was in a Wastebook report, she went straight to her department head’s office. She was relieved to find he was supportive. “I’ll always remember the first thing he said to me: ‘If you’re not upsetting anyone, you’re probably not doing anything important.’” She also received letters of support from her dean and provost reiterating their commitment to supporting faculty members and their research. With all-around support from her institution, McLaughlin felt confident carrying on with her research—and the second time she was featured in the Wastebook, she just rolled her eyes and moved on with her day.
Clarke’s first instinct was to contact an NSF program manager to ask how her Wastebook mention could affect her funding potential and whether she could contribute to an official response. The manager said NSF was “used to this kind of attack” and told her that they’d already written a white paper clarifying the goals and cost of Clarke’s grant, but Clarke has not yet seen this document. Clarke says she recommends reaching out to the funding agency because it’s a good way to make sure that “the relevant people have a rebuttal of the statements in hand, that they have an actual description of science to refute the [Wastebook’s] representations,” she says. “We need to make sure anyone who is in a situation where this will be brought up will have that information.”
Scholnick took a little longer before deciding to take action. “When [the report] first came out, I didn’t want to be involved at all. I just wanted it to go away,” he says. “But it didn’t.” So, he did an about-face and mounted his own communication campaign, writing rebuttals in Scientific American and the Chronicle of Higher Education. “You need to respond politically to this and find ways to bring your message to the public. Politicians are standing up there, getting press for talking about how wasteful scientists are, and you need to respond at an equal level,” he says. He also recommends contacting your university press office and professional societies.
Learning to deal with and respond to the media attention that a Wastebook mention can generate is valuable in and of itself, notes Tommy Blanchard, a data scientist at Fresenius Medical Care in Waltham, Massachusetts, whose graduate work studying rhesus macaques’ decision-making made the cover of the 2014 Wastebook. His research, presented under the headline “Scientists Hope Gambling Monkeys Unlock Secrets of Free Will,” was “warped to make it sound absurd,” he says. But the experience taught him what to expect from media interviews, and his university’s memos to the media about the Wastebook mention gave him a behind-the-scenes look at how university communications offices handle media requests and public statements. “In a way, early in your career is the best time to have this happen to you,” he says.
According to Blanchard, the mention also came with another unexpected upside: “a little bit of fame” among colleagues. “I’d run into people at conferences who had seen [the Wastebook], and they’d come up to me; we’d laugh about it. They’d tell me, ‘Oh yeah, I see you’re wasting all the money in science.’” Blanchard says the Wastebook made for an easy conversational touch point and gave him an in to talk with professors he may not have otherwise connected with.
Scholnick, too, has experienced a silver lining to the increased visibility and media coverage from his Wastebook appearance. “There used to be tension between fishermen and biologists, but now they’re calling me,” seeking his expertise about marine animals’ health, he says. The fishermen have been excited to learn more about his research and are eager to share their own observations with Scholnick and his students, opening up opportunities for the researchers to connect with their local community.
Scholnick’s lab’s relationship with local fishermen is just one example of how science and basic research can touch people’s everyday lives, a message Scholnick wishes to convey beyond the scientific community. So when Scholnick was invited to attend an exhibition in Washington, D.C., in April 2016 called “‘Wasteful’ Research? Looking Beyond the Abstract” to explain the significance of research to politicians—including Jeff Flake (R-AZ), the senator behind one of the Wastebooks Scholnick was mentioned in—he jumped at the opportunity. The experience wasn’t exactly life-changing—Scholnick characterizes it as “a photo op”—and Flake still mentioned shrimp treadmills in the press release for his next Wastebook. But even though better science communication can’t shield scientists from being featured in future Wastebooks, it is part of scientists’ responsibility, Scholnick says. Taxpayers fund the government agencies that in turn fund much of the academic research in this country. “People want to know, ‘What are you using my money for?’ Scientists need to get better at communicating that with the public.”
Correction, 19 June, 3:30 p.m.: The original version of this article stated that Tommy Blanchard studied capuchin monkeys. This has been corrected to note that he studied rhesus macaques.