Shrimp Treadmill Study Paid for With Taxpayer Money

But it Wasn't Congress That Approved the Study

Old cartoon of military man in uniform riding a shrimp.
A Triumphant Reverse. Fototeca Storica Nazionale

The famous shrimp treadmill study (video), conducted by researchers at Pacific University and College of Charleston, came under scrutiny during debates over the federal deficit and wasteful spending in 2011.

Yes, the shrimp treadmill research cost taxpayers more than $3 million over the course of a decade. That includes a $559,681 grant for research into "Impaired Metabolism and Performance in Crustaceans Exposed to Bacteria."

But don't blame Congress, as the AARP did in a major television ad buy in 2011. The decision to fund the research actually came from the National Science Foundation.

Shrimp Treadmill Grilled

The AARP suggested the shrimp treadmill was but one of many examples of wasteful spending in a commercial it ran in the spring and summer of 2011, as Congress debated ways to trim the nation's debt.

The ad read: "If Congress really wants to balance the budget, they could stop spending our money on things like a cotton institute in Brazil, poetry at zoos, treadmills for shrimp. But instead of cutting waste or closing tax loopholes, next month Congress could make a deal that cuts Medicare, even Social Security. I guess it's easier to cut the benefits we earned than to cut pickle technology."

AARP was not the first to cast the shrimp treadmill in a harsh light, though.

About the Shrimp Treadmill Study

The shrimp treadmill and National Science Foundation were initially targeted as an example of pork by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma in 2011, though the research had begun years earlier.

"As a practicing physician and a two-time cancer survivor, I have a very personal appreciation for the benefits of scientific research," Coburn wrote in a report titled The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope. "Investing in innovation and discovery can transform and improve our lives, advance our understanding of the world, and create meaningful new jobs."

He added, though: "The theory in Washington all too often tends to be if you throw enough money at a problem, you can solve all our nation's problems. But when Congress commits the nation to significant increases in spending, Congress owes it to the U.S. taxpayers to pay careful attention to how those dollars are being spent."

Researchers developed the shrimp treadmill to test whether sickness would impair the mobility of the crustaceans. It remained unclear, however, what the practical impact of such research would be.

Sick shrimp have more limited mobility, which may mean they are less likely to avoid being eaten. "A decrease in performance may mean the difference between life and death," Scholnick was quoted as saying.

About the National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…" Under its congressional mandate, the NSF funds fundamental research and education in all fields of science and engineering.

With a budget of just over $7.5 billion in fiscal year 2017, the NSF funds about a fifth of all federally supported basic research conducted at U.S. colleges and universities.

NSF funding for research is distributed through grants, and cooperative agreements to more than 2,000 colleges, universities, K-12 school systems, businesses, informal science organizations and other research organizations throughout the United States.

Of the more than 48,000 competitive requests for funding it receives every year, the NSF awards about 12,000 new research grants.

At the time, the NSF responded to Sen. Coburn's criticism of the “Shrimp on a Treadmill” study by pointing out that the projects it funds "have advanced the frontiers of science and engineering, improved Americans' lives and provided the foundations for countless new industries and jobs."

About the National Institutes of Health

As another major source of congressionally authorized research funding, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), agency of the cabinet-level U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), bills itself as nation’s medical research agency.

Currently, the NIH awards nearly $32.3billion in grants annually for medical research in support of its stated mission of seeking “fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”

Almost 50,000 research studies funded by NIH grants are being conducted by over 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions in every state and around the world. 

More About Sen. Tom Coburn, ‘Dr. No.’

After a successful career in medicine, during which he delivered over 4,000 babies, Dr. Tom Coburn was elected to the United States House of Representatives from Oklahoma in 1994 as part of the so-called Republican Revolution. Keeping his campaign promise to serve no more than three consecutive terms, he did not run for re-election in 2000. In 2004, he returned to political life and was elected to the United States Senate. Coburn was re-elected to a second term in 2010 and again kept his pledge not to seek a third term in 2016. In January 2014, Coburn announced he would resign before the expiration of his final term due to a recurrence of prostate cancer. Coburn died at his home in Tulsa on March 28, 2020, exactly two weeks after his 72nd birthday.

A staunch lifelong fiscal and social conservative, Coburn was known for his opposition to deficit spending pork barrel and earmark projects, and his opposition to abortion. Considered by his supporters as “the godfather of the modern conservative austerity movement.” He supported term limits, gun rights, and the death penalty while opposing same-sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research. Many Democrats referred to him as "Dr. No" due to his frequent use of technicalities to block federal spending bills.

Coburn opposed abortion, except when necessary to save the life of the mother. On the issue, Coburn sparked controversy with his remark, “I favor the death penalty for abortionists and other people who take life,” even noting that his great-grandmother had been raped by a sheriff. Coburn was one of the original authors of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act upheld by the United States Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Carhart.

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Murse, Tom. "Shrimp Treadmill Study Paid for With Taxpayer Money." ThoughtCo, Jul. 4, 2022, Murse, Tom. (2022, July 4). Shrimp Treadmill Study Paid for With Taxpayer Money. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "Shrimp Treadmill Study Paid for With Taxpayer Money." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).