Episode 779: Shrimp Fight Club

Jun 21, 2017

What Senator Jeff Flake hates: frivolous government spending; what he loves: puns.

So, every year, he releases a list of what he considers wasteful government expenditures. It's called a wastebook. He titles his with an over-the-top pun. The 2015 edition was "The Farce Awakens." The one from this January goes by "PORKemon Go." When he's presenting his reports to congress, Flake looks like he's having the time of his life.

What's less fun is finding out that your life's work made the list. This happened to Sheila Patek, a biologist at Duke University who gets federal funding. Among other things, she studies the mantis shrimp, a small sea creature that looks something like a rainbow-colored lobster with a ball peen hammer attached to its face. It is a badass sea creature that can smash open clamshells, beat crabs in combat, and deliver strikes with more force than anything human engineers can make at comparable size under water. Its hammer accelerates at speeds comparable to bullets.

To study the mantis shrimp's hammer, Patek's students let them fight each other and watched. When Senator Flake found out about this, he or someone on his staff deemed it a waste of money and dubbed it a "Shrimp Fight Club." Flake added it to his Star Wars-themed wastebook and told anyone in the media who would listen that this research was waste.

On today's show we bring you the story of how Sheila Patek responded. It involves an extremely unusual science fair, an awkward confrontation, loads of star wars puns, and the fiscal health of our nation and the future of knowledge at stake.

Today's show is adapted from PRI's Undiscovered, a new podcast from the makers of Science Friday that delves into the messy, bizarre, and unpredictable backstories to scientific research. Give it a listen.

Music: Original compositions for Undiscovered by Daniel Peterschmidt, "French Quarter Boogaloo," "El Gringo," and "Say It Out Loud."

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ELAH FEDER, BYLINE: So try Googling this.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Googling what?

ANNIE MINOFF, BYLINE: Mantis shrimp. Two words - mantis like, you know, the insect.

SMITH: OK.

MINOFF: Shrimp like a cocktail shrimp.

SMITH: Oh, I love shrimp. I'm going over to images. Holy moly.

FEDER: What are you seeing?

SMITH: Oh my, God. Wait, it's like the color of a rainbow. Is that right?

MINOFF: Yes.

SMITH: I don't - it looks like - it looks like a lobster at a gay pride march.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Right?

MINOFF: I - when I first saw it I was like, this thing belongs in a pineapple under the sea with SpongeBob.

SMITH: (Laughter) I'm in the studio with Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. They are the hosts of a new podcast called Undiscovered. It's the stories behind scientific discoveries. And they especially wanted us here at PLANET MONEY to see this crazy video of the mantis shrimp, right?

FEDER: There are actually many crazy videos of the mantis shrimp. What's a good one, Annie?

MINOFF: I recommend - "Shrimp Versus Crab" is always a crowd pleaser. "Shrimp Versus Clam," close follow-up.

SMITH: I'm guessing I should put my money on the shrimp. Let me look at this. "Shrimp Versus Crab."

MINOFF: Yeah, just see what comes up there.

SMITH: It looks like it's in an aquarium. There's a shrimp and a crab. They're, like, staring at each other. And wow, the mantis shrimp is, like, backing this guy into a corner. Oh, I think - oh, oh, oh, oh, look. Oh, he's just wailing on it. There's this sort of arm-looking - it looks like a little club coming out of the head of the shrimp. And he's just smashing the crab over and over again. Oh, my God. This is a badass sea creature.

MINOFF: It is indeed. And you are not alone if you look at the view count over there. They can pack over 300 pounds of force in that smash.

FEDER: People keep these mantis shrimp in reinforced aquariums because they can actually smash the glass open.

MINOFF: OK, but this is not just for funsies (ph). This is not why we're here at PLANET MONEY Today.

SMITH: OK. OK.

MINOFF: We're here because of a scientist named Sheila Patek. And she studies these mantis shrimp for her job, and specifically this part of the mantis shrimp called the hammer. It's that...

SMITH: It's, like, part of the arm.

MINOFF: Yeah, that club that you saw. So that hammer moves at the acceleration of a bullet bursting out of a gun.

SMITH: Amazing.

MINOFF: Accelerations this fast at this scale underwater - human engineers have not been able to do this.

FEDER: Sheila's research has gotten money from the Department of Defense, from the National Science Foundation.

MINOFF: And then in 2015 something happened. A U.S. senator decided that Sheila's research was a waste of taxpayer money.

SMITH: Which is why you brought the story to us here at PLANET MONEY. The rest of this episode is adapted from the latest episode of your podcast, Undiscovered, so do the honors.

FEDER: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Elah Feder.

MINOFF: And I'm Annie Minoff. Today on the show the story of a scientist and her badass shrimp. There is an extremely awkward science fair, "Star Wars" puns galore, and just the fiscal health of our nation and the future of knowledge at stake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MINOFF: Sheila Patek's trouble started in December of 2015.

SHEILA PATEK: It was my birthday weekend (laughter).

FEDER: Sheila's a biologist. She has a lab at Duke. And she was at the lab answering some emails before heading home for the weekend when she gets this one.

PATEK: That had in the header "Good Morning America" ABC News query.

MINOFF: An ABC News reporter was emailing Sheila to get her reaction. How did Sheila feel about her work being put in a wastebook?

FEDER: A wastebook. Or sometimes it's called a waste report.

MINOFF: Or an oversight report.

FEDER: Right, lots of names. It's a document that a member of Congress puts out, basically a big list of projects funded with federal money that this congressperson thinks didn't deserve that money.

MINOFF: And according to this ABC News reporter, this is what had happened to Sheila. A U.S. senator had learned about her shrimp research, decided this was a waste of federal money, and put it in his waste book.

PATEK: When I read that email I have to say my stomach sort of fell through the floor.

FEDER: Because she knew what was coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: You will not believe what your government is wasting your tax dollars on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One hundred examples of government waste.

JEFF FLAKE: Duke University got money to actually pit shrimp against each other.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Price tag? Seven hundred seven thousand dollars.

FLAKE: This stuff, you can't make it up.

MINOFF: The study that landed Sheila in the wastebook, it was actually by one of her grad students.

FEDER: So mantis shrimp, they have this arm that ends in a rounded hammer. And they use this to smash open snail shells. This is what they eat - snails. And this hammer they use to crack open the shells.

MINOFF: The other thing that the shrimp do with these hammers is wail on each other. And so Sheila's grad student wanted to know - what is going on in these shrimp fights?

FEDER: It turns out that shrimp are using those hammers to repeatedly bash each other on a super-strong armored tail plate. The shrimp who lands the most hits gets the real estate. Which raises some interesting questions, like what is this armored tail plate made out of? How is it that it's enduring so many hits without being damaged? It suggests some pretty cool engineering applications.

MINOFF: The wastebook, however, did not exactly describe the study like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ON THE RECORD")

FLAKE: This year we have a shrimp fight club.

MINOFF: Yeah, they decided to go with shrimp fight club.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ON THE RECORD")

FLAKE: Duke University got money to actually pit shrimp against each other.

MINOFF: That is Senator Jeff Flake on Fox News' "On The Record."

FEDER: Jeff Flake is a Republican senator from Arizona. And he's the one who put Sheila's research into his 2015 wastebook, his list of the most wasteful uses of taxpayer money that year. And so, you know, Senator Flake's office declined our requests for an interview both with the senator and a senior staff member.

MINOFF: Jeff Flake is a fiscal conservative. He's a crusader against congressional earmarking, which is, you know, this practice of sneaking goodies into the budget for your constituents. He is frugal and very proud of that fact. And he loves puns, which are all over the wastebook.

FEDER: Flake's wastebook is straight up campy. In 2015, the full title was "The Wastebook: The Farce Awakens." Pretty good. OK. The "Star Wars" reboot was just about to come out, and the whole report is Star Wars themed.

MINOFF: Here is Jeff Flake introducing his wastebook on the Senate floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLAKE: It's my hope, my only hope, that this report gives Congress something to chewie (ph) on.

FEDER: Chewie?

MINOFF: Chewbacca?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLAKE: The end of bad puns.

FEDER: Oh, God.

(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLAKE: Before debt and deficit saddles taxpayers and they finally strike back.

MINOFF: The cover of the wastebook, it features a cartoon of Flake wielding the lightsaber with which he is presumably ready to lase the fat from the federal budget. Flip to page 78 and you will find a full three-page write-up of Sheila's shrimp fight club, plus a price tag - 707,000 taxpayer dollars.

So one of the things I've noticed about the wastebooks is there's kind of this - like, there's a lot of jokes.

BRYAN BERKY: Yeah.

MINOFF: That's Bryan Berky, former congressional staffer.

BERKY: The point of those is kind of - you know, it's written from the senator, right? So it's showing their personalities a little bit.

FEDER: Bryan Berky did not help write Jeff Flake's wastebook. But he's helped write other waste reports for Senators Tom Coburn and James Lankford, both from Bryan's home state of Oklahoma.

MINOFF: These days Bryan's executive director of Restore Accountability, a nonprofit that educates young people about the national debt. And Bryan points out it is not just science spending that gets criticized in wastebooks.

FEDER: In Flake's "The Farce Awakens," science projects are about a quarter of the entries.

MINOFF: Bryan says, yes, the government should totally fund science.

BERKY: We don't come to this from the perspective that we're a bunch of Luddites that don't understand, you know, the importance of basic science and research, right?

MINOFF: But maybe money's being spent in the wrong places. A few years ago the NIH director said, you know, maybe we'd have an Ebola vaccine right now if it weren't for all of those budget cuts over the years. So Bryan says, OK, not enough money for Ebola, but we have money for the stuff in the wastebook?

BERKY: And it's not meant to, you know, pit one against the other necessarily. But that's kind of Congress' job, right? Budgeting is our job.

FEDER: Resources are limited. We have a $20 trillion national debt.

BERKY: Some of these projects hiding behind the veil that all science is good science is just - you know, we just don't agree with that.

FEDER: And this is basically the message that Senator Jeff Flake took to ABC in December 2015 when he released his wastebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLAKE: A lot of those studies are very legitimate and useful. But a good number of them, you think, who in the world thought up this stuff?

VAN SUSTEREN: But somebody's got to OK this. Who's the person that's saying OK to this stuff? Who's writing the check?

MINOFF: Great question from Greta Van Susteren. She was a FOX anchor at the time. Who is writing the checks?

Where does your lab get money?

PATEK: Yeah, so I'll walk you through this process.

FEDER: Sheila paid for this so-called shrimp fight club with money from the National Science Foundation. And it's not easy to get these grants. In Sheila's field, about 90 percent of proposals get rejected.

MINOFF: But Sheila gets a grant. She gets about $900,000 to be distributed over five years. So she's basically rich.

FEDER: Right, except now she has to knock off $400,000-ish (ph) - roughly $400,000, which is going to Sheila's university for overhead.

MINOFF: Her lab building...

FEDER: Her utilities. Now she's got about $500,000 left, which works out to...

MINOFF: Divide by five years.

FEDER: Right, divide by five years, $100,000 a year. That goes to pay a postdoc, a grad student, pay for everybody's conference travel, a summer program that brings grade school teachers to Sheila's lab.

MINOFF: And it pays for a shrimp fight club.

FEDER: Yeah, how much was that?

PATEK: What I can tell you is it's in the order of only a couple thousand dollars, if that much.

FEDER: This was one of the things that really irked Sheila about the wastebook. It made it sound like she'd spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on just one study, on this shrimp fight club, when instead, she'd spent it on multiple totally different studies, on training young scientists and mentoring grade school teachers.

MINOFF: And so sitting there, at her desk, on her birthday weekend, she had a choice to make. She could ignore the wastebook, wait for the news cycle to move on. But she didn't. She did not want to slink away like a mantis shrimp who'd just lost a fight, a burrow-less mantis shrimp. She decided to fire back at Senator Flake.

FEDER: Strike back, even.

MINOFF: Make the case for why mantis shrimp matter.

PATEK: And then, it becomes something constructive and not that miserable sinking feeling where you have to hide or just feeling like, man, what is up with politics? Why am I, you know, the focus of this now? Just so stupid at some level. But I felt like I deserved to have a chance to explain why what we do is important for the broader goal of explaining why science is important to the world.

MINOFF: And then she got her chance. Sheila got another email, an invitation to Washington, D.C. Would Sheila come to Capitol Hill and present her research to members of Congress?

FEDER: Coming up, the tensest, weirdest science fair you've ever attended, as so-called spendthrift scientists meet Congress. That's after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PATEK: OK, the trip to D.C.

MINOFF: Three months after her research showed up in Senator Flake's wastebook, Sheila Patek got an invitation to D.C. It was for a reception hosted by two science advocacy groups. And the idea was researchers who'd been singled out in these waste reports, they'd go to the Hill. They would set up in the Senate office building, and Congress people would drop by. And these scientists would explain the value of their work, basically make the case that the wastebook got them wrong.

FEDER: So in April 2016, Sheila's standing in this beautiful marble room in front of a poster about mantis shrimp.

MINOFF: Naturally.

FEDER: And she's surrounded by all these so-called pilfers of the public purse. A few feet away, there's the scientist who put monkeys in hamster balls on treadmills.

MINOFF: Also, the public health researcher who inspired this headline - "Feds Wonder Why Fat Girls Can't Get Dates." And then there's Sheila.

PATEK: You know, one thing that we heard a lot was, please do not get mad at the people who show up.

FEDER: Flake wasn't the only politician on the invite list. In the last decade, wastebooks have taken off in D.C. There's a handful of congressmen who now publish their own takes on the waste report with slightly different spins.

MINOFF: Senator James Lankford has his "Federal Fumbles." John McCain has "America's Most Wasted." There's Rand Paul's "The Waste Report," Steve Russell's "Waste Watch." All had been invited. All of them, you might have noticed, are Republican.

FEDER: But that wasn't always the case. The guy in whose footsteps all wastebook writers follow, the founding father of the wastebook, he was a Democrat - Senator William Proxmire from Wisconsin.

MELINDA BALDWIN: Proxmire is someone who is unafraid to take strong stances. He is an early advocate of campaign finance reform. He was a very early critic of the Vietnam War.

FEDER: That's science historian Melinda Baldwin. She's written about Proxmire and early science-funding fights.

BALDWIN: He's also a diet and jogging enthusiast.

MINOFF: Melinda says one time, during this debate about whether or not the Senate should approve funds for a new gym...

BALDWIN: Proxmire gets up. And he says, that's a waste of taxpayer money. None of you need a gym. You should learn all learn to jog, and I will teach you how. (Laughter).

MINOFF: Proxmire actually had a book about jogging - "You Can Do It!" - exclamation point - "Senator Proxmire's Exercise, Diet And Relaxation Plan."

BALDWIN: But that moment, I think, was very much in Proxmire's grand tradition because the other thing that he's really famous for is being an aggressive critic of government spending.

FEDER: Proxmire hated waste. He wanted to root it out. And in 1975, he hits on a brilliant idea.

BALDWIN: The Golden Fleece Awards.

MINOFF: The Golden Fleece Awards work like this. Every month, Proxmire will award a prize.

BALDWIN: Imagine prize in air quotes here because it's not a prize; it's a badge of dishonor.

MINOFF: A prize to the most egregious use of taxpayer money. And these prizes get attention because the press releases - kind of funny.

BALDWIN: They're funny and a little mean.

MINOFF: The puniness of Flake's wastebook, that is classic Proxmire. And Proxmire goes after science.

FEDER: And Melinda says it's not that Proxmire was against government funding of science per se. It's just that he didn't want to fund stuff that seemed like it would never pay off.

MINOFF: And I asked Melinda - we've been doing this waste report thing for four decades. Has the argument changed, or are we just dancing the same dance?

BALDWIN: I think it's kind of the same dance. I think that, in a way, we're all still dancing to Proxmire's tune.

MINOFF: So Sheila's come all the way up to D.C. for this incredibly awkward science fair, and she wants to make the case to Senator Flake for why mantis shrimp matter. And here she has this chance to break out of this dance that we've all been stuck in.

FEDER: If Flake shows. Sheila was told somebody from his office would show up.

PATEK: I was expecting, you know, some kind of staffer.

MINOFF: The intern.

PATEK: Yeah, the intern, right? And so I'm sitting there talking to somebody, and I look up towards the entrance. And I see Senator Flake, who's actually quite a distinctive-looking person.

MINOFF: Senator Flake is tall, tan, got a beaming smile and a dimpled chin.

PATEK: And I - (laughter) I mean, I almost passed out. I freaked out. And I'm like, I'm trying to get myself back to the present, to talking to the person who I was presenting to. And I see him slowly weaving his way towards me. So yeah, so gradually, he made his way to my station.

MINOFF: What'd you say? Like, what happened?

PATEK: Well, he came up and was very polite. And I said, you know, may I present to you the work? And he said, sure.

FEDER: And here's what Sheila told him. These shrimp, these fight-club mantis shrimp, they are clobbering us when it comes to engineering, outperforming our best systems by orders of magnitude.

PATEK: So I started by just showing him what engineering is not doing today and what biology's been doing for millions of years.

MINOFF: So first, these shrimp, they wield their hammers at accelerations on par with a bullet coming out of a gun, at accelerations that outpace missiles and racecars. And they don't use combustion, just this system of springs and latches in their arm, a system that they deploy over and over and over without it breaking. And they do this in water at tiny scales that human engineers can't replicate.

PATEK: For example, mantis shrimp can open these snail shells with such tiny hammers that they weigh about the mass of two toothpicks. And they can hit one of these snails that we have to use a hammer for. And they can break them.

FEDER: And then she really sells it. She explains what this could do for humans.

MINOFF: She explained how mantis shrimp, even though they're wielding their deadly hammers at bullet-like accelerations, they avoid this weird fluid dynamics thing called cavitation. Usually when you're moving as fast as a mantis shrimp does under water, you create this area of low pressure, and the water literally vaporizes in that spot. It forms a little bubble called a cavitation bubble.

And this bubble implodes in a burst of light creating heat equivalent to the surface of the sun. Cavitation will wear away the steel on a boat propeller. It's the bane of naval engineers. But mantis shrimp avoid it until the final moment when their hammer hits that snail shell and the shell cracks in a burst of heat and light. How do they do it?

FEDER: Or take the tail plate that these shrimp used in fights. This tail plate is taking blows like a punching bag over and over. But unlike a punching bag, it's light. And that's why engineers have been using Sheila's research to help them develop materials to make better sports helmets and better armor.

PATEK: And, you know, I have to say - well, you know, I guess we all know this - that a lot of times, it really helps to have a conversation face to face with people. I mean (laughter), I think we all know that, but it's good to be reminded. And he, you know, he really - I really felt like he was listening, or else he was a good faker. But I think he was listening.

FEDER: So Sheila goes for it.

PATEK: And I said, you know, is any of this worthwhile to you?

MINOFF: And he pointed to the part of her poster about human applications.

PATEK: And he said that seemed worthwhile to him.

FEDER: But here's the thing. Senator Flake, he wants these human applications. But if he wants this particular human application, this bio-inspired armor, you only get that if you gamble in the first place that investigating an animal as weird as the mantis shrimp might pay off.

MINOFF: And the government makes these gambles all the time. The federal government spends about $34 billion a year on basic research. So it is totally fair to ask, what kind of return are we getting on that investment? Like, what is the number?

PAULA STEPHAN: I think it would be very dangerous for economists to tell you that there's a number.

MINOFF: That is Paula Stephan, professor of economics at Georgia State University, who could not give us a number.

FEDER: Paula's, like, look, you want a rate of return...

STEPHAN: You've got to know what the benefits are. And you also have to know what the cost is.

MINOFF: And for something like a stock market investment, that's not too hard to figure out. But figuring that out for science...

FEDER: Yeah, good luck.

STEPHAN: I mean, the perfect example that everyone in my field brings up is the atomic clock.

FEDER: In 1879, A guy named Lord Kelvin writes that maybe we could use atoms to tell time.

MINOFF: Genius.

FEDER: But it takes about seven decades before a physicist named Rabi actually figures out how to do it.

MINOFF: And voila, the atomic clock.

STEPHAN: You know, most people, I think, who turn on their GPS device, don't have a clue that we would not have GPS if it weren't for the atomic clock.

FEDER: This becomes a problem because if we want to calculate how much money went into the invention of GPS...

MINOFF: Like, a truly transformative technology.

FEDER: ...Do I have to go all the way back to Lord Kelvin?

MINOFF: And that's just the cost side of the equation, right? How do you calculate the benefits? Because sometimes investments in science, they pay off. Sometimes they pay off really big, like they did with the MRI and the laser and, oh yeah, the Internet.

FEDER: And yeah, you can try to put a number on those benefits. People have tried to calculate the economic value of the Internet.

STEPHAN: The problem, though, with those studies is that they've just been selected on winners, you know? And there're a number of research projects out there that don't have a happy-ever-after ending, so to speak.

MINOFF: But if you ask Sheila why her work is important, she doesn't talk to you about the economic benefits. It's not the kind of payoff she's talking about.

PATEK: The knowledge that we generate in my lab is why it's important. It's that we have explored biology. We have tested it. We have put it to the most rigorous scientific analysis that we possibly can. And from that, we've been able to say new things about the world. And that is what I think the value of what I do is.

MINOFF: A month after their conversation, Senator Flake released another wastebook. It's science-themed, titled "Twenty Questions: Government Studies That Will Leave You Scratching Your Head."

FEDER: The cover features the latest poster-children of wasteful science spending - no boxing shrimp, but there's a drunk songbird and a sexy goldfish.

MINOFF: But inside, the writers do something interesting. They have a list - 20 questions that they hope will guide science-funding decisions, questions designed to get at what the value of science is. Will this research advance science in a meaningful way? Will the study enhance technology or advanced medicine?

FEDER: Will it expand our understanding of the universe?

MINOFF: They're good questions. They're continuing the conversation.

FEDER: And then, you flip the page...

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW KINGSLOW'S "FRENCH QUARTER BOOGALOO")

FEDER: ...And you read about how one researcher spent part of a $1 million grant to find out where it hurts most to get stung by a bee.

MINOFF: And another round of the dance begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW KINGSLOW'S "FRENCH QUARTER BOOGALOO")

SMITH: That was Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Their podcast is "Undiscovered" from the folks behind the radio show "Science Friday." Check it out - undiscoveredpodcast.org, or wherever you can find podcasts. If there's another podcast out there you think we should adapt, something that most of your friends have never heard of, let us know. Get in touch on Facebook or Twitter. We are PLANET MONEY. Our email is planetmoney@npr.org. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW KINGSLOW'S "FRENCH QUARTER BOOGALOO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.