Sunday, May 16, 2010

Robobees Redux

While I intentionally try to avoid the political on this blog, I did make an exception previously when I heard that the Harvard Robobees project had made #1 on Sean Hannity's "List of Government's Most Reckless Spending," because that's downright stupid.  I've actually noticed that they've got the transcript from his show about this online.  (The video is also available here.)  Let's see what they actually say:

Begin Transcript:

And finally, we are here, and No. 1 will shock you. For that, we go to Ainsley Earhardt, who is standing by in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tonight — Ainsley.
AINSLEY EARHARDT, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Sean, No. 1 brings us here to Harvard University. This school got $9.3 million in stimulus money to build flying robotic bees, which they hope will one day help monitor traffic and even pollinate crops. We were in the community today, and this town was buzzing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Probably isn't going to stimulate the economy in the short term, which is what the stimulus package was supposed to do.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think Harvard is doing anything that's wrong or improper. And I work with this organization a lot, and they do a lot of great research.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It seems like a project like that, while certainly admirable, and could definitely contribute in some way in the future, would probably be best put on hold for a while.
EARHARDT: Did this$ 9.3 million project create any jobs? Well, according to's Web site it created 1.66 jobs.
Well, we called Harvard, and they did give us a statement, and we're reading that, in part: "The three percent of stimulus funding provided for research was not only intended to create jobs immediately, it was also intended to stimulate economic growth, which is precisely what science funding does.
Designing and developing miniaturized flying robotic instruments that will prove useful in any number of ways, including surveillance applications on the battlefield and in weather forecasting, is an extremely important project."
So Sean, no one says that this project is not important. Folks here are just wondering how badly it will sting.
Back to you.
HANNITY: And thanks, Ainsley.

End Transcript.

Gee, you'd think they'd be able to come up with more damning things to day about the project, given that it was #1 on their list.  I'm actually disappointed reading this.  The only "shocking" thing about it is how little negative they actually say.  It sounds like some interns made up the list, decided robotic bees sounded goofy so they should put it up at #1, and then when they actually did even a little digging, realized they couldn't say all that much bad about it.  Even if one chooses to subscribe the usual tropes that the fringe (or not-so-fringe) right wing doesn't understand or care about science and technology that might range from useful to vital for our food supply, and that the only "good research" is weapons research, there are so many obvious potential military applications for such technology that they can't even make that sort of argument against this research project.  The only thing they seem to say is, "Well, this was part of the stimulus, how many jobs did it create?"  First, I'm not clear that the Expeditions budget directly came from stimulus money -- perhaps someone with better knowledge can clarify that?  But even if it did, Harvard's response statement seems quite appropriate.  

For a more reasonable take on the project, you could look, well, just about anywhere, including Engadget, Electronics Weekly, Network World, and several others.  Heck, even Robot Armageddon had a more reasoned take on the work (and they're worried about, well, the forthcoming robot armageddon). 

What's sad, though, is how often Hannity's list -- and the poor thinking behind it -- has been copied and passed around through the web.  A little looking around on Google shows it's been repeated probably hundreds of times in various places.  Clearly a lot of people have seen it, and probably many aren't inclined to get actual real information on their own.  While I haven't heard of any actual negative impacts on the Robobees research group, I think it's best for the community to be vigilant against this sort of ridiculous attack -- because, in the end, it could affect us all.  


Anonymous said...

Just ignore what these jerks are saying. Everyone knows that Robobees is an interesting project with lots of important applications.
I am the same person, who raised the issue that perhaps 9.6M was too much for this project. I stand by my views.
But, I think that Hannity and others are being complete a$%holes because of their stupid arguments.
CS Grad Student

Unknown said...

Well, if it is accurate, then I'm with "unidentified male #1." Granted, it's more of a matter of improper spending rather than reckless spending. The stimulus was a huge spending package sold as necessary to get the economy back on its feet as soon as possible. Yet we find that too much of the spending is not going to "getting America working" in 2009 and 2010, to "jobs saved or created," but rather to projects that someone just wanted funding for, irrespective of whether a job was involved or not. (In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Robobees created or saved 0 jobs in 2009 and 2010. Will Harvard hire 1.66 more members of staff due to the project? I somehow doubt it.)

It might have defense applications, but the funding didn't come from DoD. It might have general science applications, but the funding didn't come from NSF's general budget, either. It came from the stimulus, and, as such, deserves to be criticized. Maybe it's #1 because of the cute name, but it's on the list because it's spending that was billed as one thing but used for something else. If I embezzled $1 million from a company and donated it to needy families and orphans, would you be right to criticize my actions as "reckless"? I think so. The main difference here is that, when the government does it, it's not illegal.

With so many governments, from Greece to California, in peril from spending in excess of their means, we should realize that most governmental spending "looks good" from the right perspective. But we can only afford to spend so much. Maybe Robobees should be part of that. But, if so, it should be funded through proper channels, not some three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollar loophole called "stimulus," which is supposed to be for short-term growth, to smooth out the effects of a down economy. Will Robobees help do that? Is $10 million the right price to save or create a job or two? If not, it should be criticized, but criticizing the way government funds a project shouldn't be confused with criticizing the project itself. Some viewers and blogs might be doing this, but so, I suspect, are those offended by the criticism.

Anonymous said...

You know that great feeling you get when you drop the Harvard name? This animosity is just the flip side of that.

If this project were being done instead at say, UIUC, no way it makes the stupid list.

Matt Welsh said...

M - a few points. The term "stimulus package" has been used too broadly to cover every aspect of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. $8.9bn of ARRA was earmarked for Scientific Research. There is a large amount of the ARRA funding that is not about the conventional meaning of the term "stimulus"; take for example funds for maintenance of Coast Guard facilities. So the blanket term is misleading.

Second, the RoboBees project did in fact create jobs: we have budget to hire something like 11 postdocs and close to that many graduate students, and a substantial number of undergraduate researchers over the 5 years of the project. So while I will not defend RoboBees as being intended to "stimulate the economy", the accusation that no jobs were created is just plain false.

Unknown said...

If you say you'll hire 11 postdocs, how does that get translated into 1.66 jobs? Or is the project really of size ($9.6 million) x 11 / 1.66? This stimulus math has been rather funky, so if you can shed some light on it, I'd appreciate knowing. (And, by the way, I did not assert that it would create no jobs, but that I wouldn't be surprised if that 1.66 number were really 0. If it's really 11, that's even further off from 1.66 than I thought, though in a surprising direction from it!)

The ARRA was sold to the American people as a stimulus. If it wasn't, why did we need to spend the better part of a trillion dollars now on things that couldn't fit in the budget during flusher times? The whole point - we were told - is that the taxpayers shouldn't worry about ARRA money because it's a one-time expense and won't affect the deficit in the long term, only the debt (ignoring, of course, interest payments on the debt). If you're telling me that politicians lied, I suppose I shouldn't be shocked. But I should hope you'd at least have some reservations about that fact. That doesn't mean Harvard should give back the money, but you should at least understand why some people might not be terribly happy about how Harvard got it.

D. Eppstein said...

Grant funding is actually an effective way to get money flowing into the economy, because the money has to be spent relatively quickly rather than hoarded. And, as has already been mentioned, one of the main things it gets spent on is employing people.

The usefulness of this sort of spending as an economic stimulus is largely unrelated to the value of the research generated by the grant, but in this case the research does appear to be worthwhile too.