How a $47 Shrimp Treadmill Became a $3-Million Political Plaything

Over the past few years numerous media stories have surfaced about how hard-earned taxpayer dollars are supporting scientists who run shrimp on treadmills: Forbes.com listed shrimp-treadmill research as wasting $3-million in taxpayer dollars, AARP produced a nationally distributed commercial of lab-coat-wearing scientists running shrimp on treadmills to equate the lack of federal support for retiree health-care services to money spent on shrimp-treadmill research, and Mike Huckabee linked the National Science Foundation’s funding of shrimp-treadmill studies to limited military spending.

A video clip of a shrimp running on a treadmill has somehow become the nation’s poster child for wasteful spending and grounds for the Republican-led House of Representatives science committee to recently investigate wasteful spending of NSF-funded research projects across the country.

My name is David, and I am the marine biologist who put a shrimp on a treadmill—a burden I will forever carry. To be clear, the treadmill did not cost millions of taxpayer dollars, the goal of the research was not to exercise shrimp, and the government did not pay me—or anyone else—to work out shrimp on treadmills.

Simply put, my colleagues and I were studying how recent changes in the oceans could potentially affect the ability of marine organisms to fight infections—an important question, given that the amount of bacteria a shrimp is able remove from its body is directly related to how much bacteria could potentially end up on seafood-filled plates. And since shrimp are active animals in nature, it was logical to study the immune response of shrimp during activity.

Exactly how much taxpayer money did go into the now-famous shrimp treadmill? The treadmill was, in fact, made from spare parts—an old truck inner tube was used for the tread, the bearings were borrowed from a skateboard, and a used pump motor was salvaged to power the treadmill. The total price for the highly publicized icon of wasteful government research spending? Less than $50. (All of which I paid for out of my own pocket.)

In science it is often necessary to develop creative solutions to complex problems. How do you get active marine animals to move naturally in a laboratory setting? How do marine animals fight off the glut of pathogens they are exposed to in the harsh environments where they live? These are not simple questions, there are no easy solutions, and they require an enormous amount of time and effort to answer. It is, of course, impossible to understand the meaning and value of complex experiments from a short shrimp video clip pilfered from my faculty webpage and posted to YouTube.

It is disingenuous for the Republican-controlled House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to promote the idea that scientists are wasting millions of taxpayer dollars to run shrimp on treadmills based on a 30-second video clip. Given that every teaspoon of seawater can contain millions of bacteria, it does not take a mental giant to understand that the health of marine organisms and the safety of the seafood we eat are closely related.

The health  of the organisms that inhabit the largest ecosystem on the planet and the potential bacterial contamination of the food we eat are serious and important questions. I, like many of my colleagues,  are deeply concerned by the minimization and politicization of our work.

In an effort to put an end to the erroneous media reports of wasteful government sponsored shrimp-treadmill research, I am willing to put my infamous treadmill up for sale. All profits will go toward supporting marine-biology research so that grandmothers across the country will no longer be denied medication, our heroic soldiers fighting abroad might be able to get the military equipment they need, and the House science committee can rest easy knowing that they can once again eat fat juicy shrimp—free of bacteria—without using up government funds. For the bargain price of $1-million (shrimp not included)—that’s 67 percent off the price listed by Forbes.com—a lucky individual, perhaps Rep. Lamar Smith (the Texas Republican and chairman of the House science committee), can literally put their money and their shrimp where their mouth is.

David Scholnick, The Chronicle of Higher Education

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