10 ways to avoid having congressmen make fun of your academic research

During one of John McCain's periodic rounds of earmark shaming in 2010, Jonathan Chait, then of the New Republic, made an astute observation about one of the senator's favorite rhetorical strategies:  "McCain's favorite method in such things is to seize upon any program that involves research into animals, because animals sound silly."

The target that time was a stimulus-funded study by medical researchers on the effect of cocaine on monkeys, which sounds dumb initially until you realize it's a pretty good way of learning about the effect of cocaine on people. 

Yesterday, Slate's David Weigel reported on the GOP's recent attacks on National Science Foundation's funding of social science research, and I noticed Florida Rep. Bill Posey was adopting the same tactic. Among the names of taxpayer-funded studies he rattled off, the first and most prominent was “ ‘Picturing Animals in National Geographic for the years 1988 to 2008’ costing $227,000.”

That study, by Linda Kalof of Michigan State University, seems to have acquired the unenviable status of poster child for government waste -- the monkeys getting high of 2013. It was the first study mentioned in Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith's letter to the NSF's acting director on April 25. Probably not coincidentally, it was also the central example used in a Washington Times editorial in March. 

Personally I don't have a problem with some government money being spent on pure research, and I love National Geogrpahic, but even I'll admit that this one's a little hard to defend on national interest grounds.

Some of the other studies that the congressmen are harping on seem like odd choices though. Posey mentioned "Kinship, Women's Labor and China's Economic Performance in the 17th to 21st Centuries" and "Regulating Accountability and Transparency in China's Dairy Industry." Sure, "dairy industry" sounds silly (food is almost as silly as animals, especially food that comes from animals) but we're not interested in better understanding the Chinese economy all of a sudden? 

Smith mentions a Cornell study called "Comparative Network Analysis: Mapping Global Social Interactions." That might sound kind of highfalutin,' but the authors actually do explain some pracitcal ramifcations of their work in the mapping project, noting that it could be used to study the spread of pathogens, the diffusion of economic innovation, and social movements like the Arab Spring.

You can dispute whether this is really worthwile, but it sounds like these authors are trying to provide the sort of justification Smith is asking for, and I imagine they're included in the letter mostly because the title sounds kind of wishy-washy.

Since I'm guessing most politicians don't bother reading abstracts, to say nothing of the actual papers, I'm going to provide my friends in the social sciences with a few words and concepts to avoid in your study's title if you don't want it to be included in some congressman's grandstanding testimony:

1. Any animal (Especially monkeys. Monkeys are hilarious.)

2. "Kinship"

3. "Networks"

4. Gender/sexuality Also: masculinity/feminity/masculinities/feminities

5. "Identity"

6. Any country or region not regularly mentioned on the Sunday shows. (If it's a silly sounding name like Pago Pago or Saskatchewan just give up now.)

7. Media/pop culture references

8. Drugs

9. "Narratives"

10. Any years that aren't within the last 10

To reiterate, I don't have any problem with your study of "identity narratives within the gendered kinship networks of the LSD-using marmots of South Borneo between 1874 and 1912 as depicted on ABC Family dramedies," but if you want government funding for it, try to come up with a more generic name or you might become a C-Span highlight.

JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN/AFP/GettyImages

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