Through the years the federal government has funded some truly bizarre studies. But it doesn’t get much stranger than giving researchers $1.5 million to study the performance of fish on a treadmill. That’s just one of the studies and projects detailed in Sen. Jeff Flake’s annual report on government waste, “Wastebook: PORKémon Go.” Flake (R-Ariz.) and his staff shed light on 50 different projects, everything from the treadmilling fish to a half-million dollar study that had computers binge watch TV shows like Desperate Housewives to predict what happens next. Some of these studies may actually one day prove useful in producing smarter computers, health-care advances and other wonders. Some seem frivolous. But they all certainly seem weird today.
5. Study Puts Fish on a Treadmill ($1.5 million)
Perhaps you’ve watched fish in an aquarium, and wondered, “What would happen if someone put these fish on a treadmill?” Actually, researchers at three different institutions have received a combined $1.5 million to study fish performance on treadmills, or in treadmill-like conditions. One study, at the University of California-San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography, made some interesting observations. After putting mudskippers — a fish that can live out of water for long periods and use its fins like legs — on a treadmill, researchers found that the fish could exercise longer under higher oxygen levels in the water. Researchers concluded the study supports the hypothesis that the rise in atmospheric oxygen hundreds of millions of years ago spurred the movement of aquatic life from water onto land.
4. Study: Fraternity Members Drink, Party ($5 million)
The National Institutes of Health has funded numerous studies for a Brown University researcher studying alcohol interventions in college students. While reducing problem drinking among young adults is an admirable goal, the study bullet-pointed many seemingly obvious conclusions: Members of fraternities and sororities drink more and smoke more than other students; these students party more on game days; and college students enjoy playing drinking games. Given those facts, this finding makes perfect sense: fraternity and sorority members sleep in later than other students.
3. Computers Binge Watch TV to Predict Human Behavior ($460,000)
We all know that TV shows aren’t like real life, but that’s a message computers apparently don’t understand. Researchers in Massachusetts programmed computers to watch 1,000 hours of TV shows and online videos. The computers were then shown a different set of videos of humans about to greet each other and asked to predict how they would meet (handshake, hug, kiss, etc.) Shocking finding: computers guessed how the greeting would go 43 percent of the time, compared to 71 percent of humans in the study.
Disturbing finding: the study included the TV show The Office. Do we really want computers to watch and “learn” from the behavior of Michael, Dwight and Creed? The Department of Defense funded this study, which gives it instant credibility. Once upon a time, the DoD backed research on a farfetched project to allow computers around the world to talk to each other (the ARPANET, which morphed into the modern Internet). Then again, the DoD is the same agency that paid for those infamous $640 toilet seats a few years back. We’re not sure where this study fits on that scale.
2. How Will the World React to Alien Life? ($1.1 Million)
We are not alone in the universe. Or so say countless scientists who point out the sheer improbability of humans being unique in the vast universe. So when that day comes that we first encounter alien life, whether they come in peace or with death rays set on “Kill,” we need to be prepared. NASA is doing its part with a $1.1 million study designed to study “the societal implications of the search for life in the universe.” The Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, N.J., is overseeing about a dozen scholars in theology, humanities and the social sciences. Hopefully they will present their findings before ET arrives.
1. Does ‘Jaws’ Theme Music Give Sharks Bad Reputation? ($3 Million)
Many people are afraid of sharks, and for good reason — they are fearsome predators. But some researchers in California believe there is another reason sharks have a bad reputation — the movie Jaws. More specifically, the researchers believe that the 1975 film’s iconic, two-note musical phrase (dun-DUN, dun-DUN, dun-DUN) repeated over and over, sticks in people’s minds. To test the theory, they showed a short video of sharks to more than 2,000 test subjects. Some saw a video that featured ominous music, although not the Jaws theme. Others saw the video in silence, or with uplifting music. No surprise that those who saw the video with scary music were more likely to describe the creatures as scary, dangerous and vicious, while the other viewers described the sharks as peaceful, beautiful and graceful. Regardless of whether you’ve heard the Jaws soundtrack or not, if you’re in the water at the beach and someone yells, “Shark!” get away fast.