Stimulus Funds Used to Study Fluorescent Spiders, Tibetan Environmentalists

October 2, 2012

OUT THERE: Millions of dollars in federal stimulus money is being spent on academic research, including studies to determine why spiders glow

DENVER — U.S. taxpayers picking up the tab for the Obama administration’s $831-billion federal “stimulus” — touted to create jobs amid a crippling recession when it passed Congress in 2009 – probably didn’t expect the program to fund research by the University of Colorado studying the fluorescent properties of glowing spiders.

Or, a CU project “…increasing general understanding of Arctic peoples and their relationship with a changing environment.” Or an inquiry by the university into why people — Chinese and Tibetans in particular — become environmentalists.

Nor did taxpayers likely anticipate forking over some $2.5 million just for those three grants alone. And that’s but a smattering of the millions of dollars awarded to the university through the stimulus package — over and above the institution’s usual federal research funding — including at least $13 million for no less than 21 projects researching the wide-ranging esoterica of climate change.

Data on those projects, gleaned from the government’s stimulus-tracking website,, makes clear that whatever role the research grants may have played in advancing science, they did precious little to create jobs. None of CU’s climate-change grants, for example, ever has averaged even as many as two jobs “created or saved” in any given quarter since the funding began.

Even as debate continues over whether the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has been more boon or boondoggle for the U.S. economy and the taxpaying public, there seems little doubt the epic spending effort has been a gift that keeps on giving for researchers carrying out obscure work at higher-ed institutions. The stimulus set aside a total of $7.6 billion for such research nationwide.

A CU spokesman said that’s as it should be given the pivotal role academic research plays in the U.S. economy. But budget hawks and waste watchdogs say the expenditures are a slap in the face to taxpayers who were sold the budget-busting stimulus as the last, best hope for saving an economy on life support. More to the point, the critics say, Americans were led to believe that the stimulus was intended to create jobs, not to round out the research portfolios of academics seeking tenure.

“That’s proof this was never about jobs,” said Leslie K. Paige, vice president for policy and communications at Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington, D.C.

“Did we have some massive unemployment in America’s universities, did we have massive layoffs?” Paige asked. “It wasn’t like you had Ph.D’s in physics standing in unemployment lines all over the United States.”

Some of the stimulus-funded research disclosed on the federal website seems unlikely to have much of an impact on the U.S. economy in general, not to mention on job creation in particular.

The nearly $2 million study on Arctic peoples and their relationship to the environment, for example, can claim only modest accomplishments, like the publishing of data sets of anecdotal information from indigenous peoples in the Arctic; sending project participants to conferences; hosting a workshop in Boulder, including bringing people from the Alaskan and Russian Arctic to attend; a project on traditional place names in the Arctic, and substantial travel to Ottawa, Paris and Iceland, among other destinations. Taxpayers also paid for a “Knowledge Coordinator” to attend the Cosmic Serpent Culminating Conference in Taos, New Mexico. The grant also paid for collaboration with the SnowChange Project based in Finland to present on the Web the history, culture and contemporary environmental situation of the Indigenous Chukchi communities of Turvaurgin and Nutendli.

A nearly $1 million grant was awarded to CU, meanwhile, to study the human response to climate change on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula — from 800 A.D. to 1400 A.D. And a $566,000 ARRA grant by the National Science Foundation to study how societies in Siberia and Labrador deal with climate change almost begs for relevance. It lists among the “publications produced as a result of this research” a piece titled, “The Inuit of Labrador-Nunatsiavut, the Moravian Brethren and Connections with French-speaking Switzerland.,” published in the Journal of the North Atlantic.

Yet, CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard said job creation and other direct economic activity stimulated by the funding is beside the point as far as the university is concerned. Hilliard said academic research of the kind funded by the stimulus ultimately shores up the ability of the nation to innovate and compete.

“The intellectual know-how of the U.S. economy is tied into research,” he said.

“We don’t think these research projects are frivolous,” Hilliard added. “Asking open-ended research questions is what we do. All of (those questions) have implications for science as well as public policy.”

Paige, however, called the entire stimulus act a “snow job” and points to the CU research funding as evidence. She says the plan’s architects never expected it to create all the jobs they promised, and once the money started flowing, politicians were only too happy to overlook the act’s original mission. Instead, they morphed it in no time into a simple pork project for the likes of universities as well as state and local governments, she said.

“The message started to change almost from the minute the money left the Treasury,” Paige said. “How quickly we forget.”

This article, courtesy of, first appeared here

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