More wacky science á la Coburn

"It's elementary, my dear Crick"Senator Tom Coburn has been attacking what he considers spurious science funded by the National Science Foundation. In a scathing recent report, he skewered grants that supported a robot that folds laundry (an activity recently proven to lead to Nobel Prizes) and taught shrimp how to run on a treadmill. Coburn, who holds a BS in accounting, an MD, and a PhD in BS, knows his science. He told ABC News, “What it says to me is, they have too much money if they’re going to spend money on things like that.”

What else “like that” has grant money been spent on over the years? Funny you should ask. We here at genotopia have compiled, as a public service, a list of insanely useless research that, as it turned out, led to Nobel Prizes. See if you can identify them. Get one point each for correctly identifying the scientist, year of their Nobel, and the scientific topic. Play along and win! Post your score in the comments section to be sure you can claim your prize!


1-6: Consider yourself an honorary Republican Senator.
7-14: You will receive a copy of Coburn’s memoir, My story and I’m sticking to it, forthcoming from Anal Richards University Press.
15-20: You will be entered in a drawing for a coveted slot as chair of an NIH study section!
21-24: Congratulations! You’ve just been elected Secretary of Labor!

a) For decades, the Carnegie Institution of Washington gave money to an eccentric, prickly loner who eventually stopped publishing altogether, and whose main contribution, if you can call it that, was a study of colored spots in corn!

b) In the early 1950s, the March of Dimes funded a bright but aimless postdoc and a superannuated and feckless British graduate student working in England, paying them to diddle around with Tinker Toys!

c) In the late 1950s, the Jane Coffin Childs Fund supported research on sex in bacteria! This same researcher went on to study life on Mars—the only science which has no subject matter!

d) Countless thousands in federal funding went to a foreign researcher who studied what happens when you poke a sea slug!

e) For more than 40 years, this Caltech scientist was supported in his research into how to create mutant fruit flies!

f) This kooky researcher was supported in what he called the “wonderful experience” of studying brown fat in Syrian golden hamsters! He later proposed the wacky hypothesis of an infectious disease that isn’t caused by any organism!

g) This so-called scientist spent time creating mutants of beer yeast that die when it gets warm! Just keep it in the fridge—it tastes better anyway!

h) This person spent years on the federal dole trying to figure out how many different kinds of garbage a rat can smell!




Answers: a) Barbara McClintock, 1983, transposable genetic elements; b) James Watson and Francis Crick, 1962, DNA double helix; c) Joshua Lederberg, 1958, bacterial conjugation; d) Eric Kandel, 2000, signal transduction in Aplysia; e) Edward B. Lewis, 1995, genetic control of early embryonic development; f) Stanley Prusiner, 1997, prions; g) Leland Hartwell, 2001, cell cycle regulation; h) Linda Buck, 2004, odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system.

7 thoughts on “More wacky science á la Coburn”

  1. Yeesh, I’m afraid I’m stuck at Republican Senator level.
    That last one I really should have known.

  2. Any research that doesn’t immediately contribute to the task of devising of new methods to kill people is, of course, a waste of taxpayers’ money. The views of Mr Coburn, who, for the information of Genotopia readers, holds a medical degree (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess makes him a colleague), in addition to his BS in accounting (I have been unable to confirm the other degrees attributed to him in the article), on the funding practices of the US National Science Foundation are thus to be taken very seriously, indeed….


  3. Thanks for your comment. I hope it is clear that any real events referred to on genotopia are, by virtue of that fact, taken seriously. The mere frivolous is beneath mention. Only the absurd-with-consequences is worth lampooning.

    The MD, by the way, is mentioned–between the BS and the BS.

  4. Good job showing all the wasteful science spending. Who needs better vaccines, antibiotics, the internet or weather satellites? Better to give the money to good, honest right-wing religious organizations. They will solve all our problems.

  5. 4 out of 8. What do I get?
    My favorite story was during the 08 Election Campaign Palin saying she’d increase funding for autism research, but studying these ‘darn fruit flies is crazy.’ Something like that.

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