It was a strange feeling being notorious in a roomful of government-funded scientists, about a fourth of whom were subjects of my reporting that highlighted the questionable expenditures their research represented.
I was greeted immediately by Pat Kobor of the American Psychological Association, which helped organize the event on Capitol Hill Wednesday evening: "‘Wasteful’ Research? Looking Beyond the Abstract."
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"Oh, we’re so glad you’re here!" she said. "That you’re willing to listen."
The reception seemed like an indictment of the numerous Free Beacon reports on wasteful spending on behavioral science studies from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. For the next hour, I would come face to face with the well-meaning researchers who wanted to "contextualize" their studies on why fat girls can’t find dates, or how a text message can help a drunk at the bar.
But my 15 minutes soon dissipated.
"So you’re famous," said a reporter from the Huffington Post. "You’re the shrimp-on-a-treadmill guy."
David Scholnick stood near his display of, yes, that shrimp, famously exposed in former Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R., Okla.) 2011 Wastebook. But Scholnick wouldn’t have any of it.
"It’s more famous, way more famous than me," he said of the crustacean, as a woman chomped down on a tasty-looking shrimp next to me. "I’m just a guy. It’s like, what do they call it in Hollywood? The talent. That’s the talent."
Scholnick was among the dozen Ph.D.s there to defend their work, which has been labeled a waste of taxpayer funding by the likes of media outlets like the Free Beacon and oversight hawks in Congress like Coburn and Sen. Jeff Flake (R. Ariz.).
At the time the shrimp treadmill study was revealed, he had received $559,681 from the National Science Foundation for a study that marked "the first time that shrimp have been exercised on a treadmill."
Scholnick’s science project display defended his research as examining the changes in ocean environments "thought to be brought about by global climate change," which may be suppressing immune response in shrimp. He said he built his homemade treadmill for $47, and it was a small part of the project that looked at how bacterial infections affect a shrimp’s gill circulation and metabolism.
Scholnick has been jokingly trying to sell the treadmill for $1 million the past two years, to no avail. He didn’t have much luck Wednesday night either.
Flake, who is carrying on the Wastebook tradition started by Coburn, made an appearance at the reception to meet with Scholnick and the other shrimp researcher, Sheila Patek of Duke University. Patek received $707,000 for a study dubbed "shrimp fight club," which Flake highlighted last year.
Flake politely listened to their case, but in the end wasn’t swayed.
"During the Ebola outbreak, it was tough to hear the director of NIH say there would’ve been a vaccine if Congress hadn’t slowed spending, and then see millions of dollars funneled to studies that just don’t pass the laugh test," Flake told the Free Beacon. "I believe that taxpayers and researchers alike would benefit from more transparency when it comes to how and why research funds are being spent."
I left the shrimp corner to find researchers of the studies I’ve actually written about. First up was a project the event organizers said was "targeted in the media with the headline ‘Feds Wonder Why Fat Girls Can’t Get Dates.’"
Dr. Aletha Akers, a pediatric gynecologist for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, was charming, friendly, and a good sport about my headline.
At the time I first reported on the National Institutes of Health’s foray into obese adolescent girls’ dating lives in October 2014, taxpayers had been billed $466,642. The tally is now up to $839,928. So much for the "chilling effect on the world of science."
My conversation with Akers hit all the key marks: sexism, food deserts, child bullying, the "peer context," "obesity perception," plus-size Dove ads, and, of course, the patriarchy.
Akers said her team determined that obese teens, both boys and girls, are less likely to be in relationships and less likely to be sexually active. But for those who are, the girls are likely to engage in risky sex.
"But many studies have kind of used the same approaches, and we wanted to kind of understand a little more about whether or not this was true," she said. "So we got funding to do a couple of things. One of the things we wanted to know was, is it really obesity or is it the perception of obesity? Given kind of cultural norms around weight and physical attractiveness. One of the things we’ve learned is actually perceived overweight, regardless of what your actual weight is, that seems to be a stronger driver. And that tends to vary by race."
"These are fascinating epidemiological associations," Akers stressed.
Alyson Reed, the executive director of the Linguistics Society of America, jumped in to ask if overweight girls turn to sex in casual hook ups or in the "context of a committed, or semi-committed relationship."
"To put it really crassly, like desperation?" she asked.
"Right," Akers said.
Reed was on the verge of a breakthrough.
"So if they view themselves as unattractive then they’re willing to accept whatever sexual attention comes their way, even if it’s offered in the context that’s very degrading."
"And very, um."
"Exactly. Exactly. Exactly," Akers said. "And no one has looked at that."
But back to the question at hand. Is the study about whether fat girls can get dates? The answer seemed as elusive as one of those cocktail shrimp I was trying to get my hands on.
"So I love the title," she told me. "Are we really interested in why fat girls can’t get dates? We’re absolutely not interested in that, right? In a way we are, because, why is that not a story, right? Like, if girls are having more difficulty in their health lives…"
"Well, it seems self-evident," said Martha Zaslow, from the Society of Research in Child Development.
Akers said she is looking at how obesity impacts "children’s social and emotional lives."
"Which is why I say, it’s a little bit about why fat girls can’t get dates, but not in that concrete terms."
I asked Akers what her end game was.
"If you do figure out these things and you prove that, yes, most of them aren’t in romantic relationships, and the ones that are engage in more risky behavior…"
"What’s the point?" she asked.
"How do you fix it?"
After going down a brief rabbit trail, Zaslow started on teen pregnancy. Akers eventually got back to my question so she could "contextualize it."
"I think it’s easy to boil it down and say, ‘Is this about their ability to sort of get dates and if most of them are having trouble.’ But our work is truly not focused on whether or not kids are dating," she said. "It’s about understanding their social lives, and how their social lives are affecting their cognition, and their decisions that may affect them in the long-term."
"It’s not about whether or not you can get dates," she finally settled on.
Peering a little closer at Akers’ display, the end game became clearer. Beneath pictures of Barbie, and Victoria’s Secret vs. the plus-size Dove soap ads, were bullet points answering, "What do we do about this problem?"
"Stop promoting unrealistic and unhealthy beauty norms."
"Celebrate the beauty of real women’s bodies."
"Ensure adolescent access to comprehensive sex education and highly effective contraception."
"This is about the health of America’s children," Akers said when I asked her why the government should be funding her work. "The government has a vested interest in promoting healthy children because healthy children become healthy adults."
She argued that her modest expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars on obese girls having difficulty finding love could end up saving money, in the long run.
"Teenage pregnancy costs us about $6.5 billion each year," she said. "If more of these girls are going out and getting pregnant, that’s a cost to the state."
I walked away, trying to collect myself over that collectivist notion. Pat hurried over to me again.
"I was afraid you had left," she said. "You have to talk to Fred Muench. He’s the text messaging guy."
Dr. Frederick Muench, a clinical psychologist, is in the final year of his now-$674,590 project using text messages to help problem drinkers, defined as people who drink 24 to 40 drinks a week.
"We wanted to engage these people because they don’t go to treatment," he said at his display, which was located nearest to the open bar.
"Individuals who have three to four drinks a night, but don’t lose their job, they are all employed pretty much," he said. I nodded, but did not reveal that this cohort included almost the entirety of the Free Beacon editorial staff.
Muench and his team sent different types of texts to a group of problem drinkers for three months.
"Tonight as you go out drinking think of how much of a hangover you might have tomorrow if you fail to meet your goals," a text might read. Or, "Think about the last time you successfully didn’t drink heavily one night. How can you learn from that experience?"
People who were struggling would get encouragement: "Keep on trucking."
The results were the group drank nine fewer drinks a week overall, but there was hardly a decline in the number of days they drank per week.
"We said to them, it doesn’t matter if you’re drinking," Muench said. "We understand you’re going to still drink because you want to moderate your drinking."
Sixty-four percent of the subjects signed up to continue receiving texts. Muench and his team at Northwell Health, a "network of 61,000 healers and innovators," are now developing an alcohol health campaign so the public can receive texts for free.
"It’s a very low-cost way that has pretty profound effects," he said. "Problem drinkers don’t have to go into a health system, they can do it on their own. When you look at these costs, 76 percent of costs of alcohol are a result of binge drinking, and if we can reduce it by two days a week. … So, I think that’s the real take-home, this is meant as a public health intervention."
I thanked him for his time. But all this talk had left me thirsty. So I stepped away from his display to go get a beer.