Sexy Fish, Drunken Birds: Head-Scratching Research Funded by Taxpayers
Policy + Politics

Sexy Fish, Drunken Birds: Head-Scratching Research Funded by Taxpayers

iStockphoto/ James Group Studios, Inc.

The next time you read a news story about wasteful government spending, remember it could always be worse -- like getting stung by a bee on your private parts worse.

On Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) rolled out a new study examining $35 million the federal government spent on questionable scientific studies  – including a $1 million grant the National Science Foundation gave to a researcher at Cornell University to pinpoint where on the human body its hurts most to be stung by a bee.

Related: Watch the Army Waste Three Humvees in Less Than Two Minutes

Spoiler: the three least painful spots are the skull, middle toe and upper arm; the most painful are the nostril, upper lip and, you guessed it, the genitals.

According to the report-- “Twenty Questions: Government Studies That Will Leave you Scratching Your Head” – Washington will provide $11 billion in tax incentives and spend $146 billion on research in 2016.

“When federal agencies don’t spend our limited research dollars wisely, they’re not just wasting money, they’re missing opportunities, and we can’t afford either,” said Flake, who also introduced legislation that would direct the Office of Management and Budget to establish a system to halt duplicative research and development projects.

Here are some of the more interesting cases cited in the 85-page report:

* The National Institutes of Health gave $5 million to the Oregon Health & Science University to study what happened to finches when they were fed white grape juice spiked with alcohol, to see if the birds slurred their songs.

The songs did end up being “a bit less organized,” the researcher found.

Related: From Drunk Birds to Trash Art: McCain Finds Billions in Government Waste

* NIH also gave $3.5 million to researchers in China for studying why some people see Jesus’ face on toast.

The phenomenon, a condition known as pareidolia , “isn’t due to a brain anomaly or imagination but is caused by the combined work of the frontal cortex which helps generate expectations and sends signals to the posterior visual cortex to enhance the interpretation stimuli from the outside world.”

One researcher involved in the study said the findings showed “it’s common for people to see non-existent features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so that even when there’s only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face.”

“I think probably this is first time we are actually telling people: ‘This is OK for you to see Jesus on toast,’” he added.

* NSF and NIH awarded $3.9 million to Bowdoin College in Maine for experiments on what makes goldfish feel sexy.

Male goldfish were injected with steroids and dropped into the middle of a fish tank that had been divided three ways, with one side holding a male fish and the other holding a female.

The result? The male goldfish pumped up on steroids spent more time swimming near the female fish.

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* NSF also gave $1.1 million to the University of California to look into why cheerleaders appear more attractive as a group rather than individually.

Over 100 undergrads took part in the effort to unlock the meaning of the “cheerleader effect.”

For each experiment, “we found 100 group photographs and cropped them to frame the faces of three people of the same gender. We then cropped each individual face to create three portrait images from each group photo,” researchers explained.

In both experiments, “subjects rated the 300 unique faces twice, once in the group photo and once in an isolated portrait. Ratings were made by moving a mouse to set a marker on a continuous scale from unattractive to attractive.”

“We found evidence of the cheerleader effect — people seem more attractive in a group than in isolation,” the researchers claimed.

* The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, sometimes referred to as the Pentagon’s “brain,” awarded $172,000 to the University of California at Santa Barbara to examine why coffee spills when someone walks.

“In our busy lives, almost all of us have to walk with a cup of coffee. While often we spill the drink, this familiar phenomenon has never been explored systematically,” researchers explained to the magazine Science.

The team found walking slower and focusing on the cup of piping hot liquid reduces the chance of spillage.

Now you can’t say the government never gave you useful advice.