Defense Department Spends Billions on Weird Research
Policy + Politics

Defense Department Spends Billions on Weird Research

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Have you ever wondered what fish can teach us about democracy? Or how well babies interact with robots? Or contemplated the color of the feathers of the very first birds? The Department of Defense spends billions of dollars in research each year attempting to answer these and other arcane questions.

To be sure, many of the Pentagon’s research projects address much weightier and consequential questions and issues. But at a time when defense officials are warning of dire consequences to national security from the sequester, some of the military’s surprisingly costly research appears – dare we say -- frivolous or non-essential.

While it may be useful to some people to figure out how fish can point the way to overcoming political polarization, scaling back research like this could save taxpayers more than $69 billion over the next decade, according to a  report released by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., last November. The report shows that DOD accounts for $73 billion of the $138.9 billion the federal government spends on research each year.

To see TFT’s list of wasteful government spending, CLICK HERE.

Here are some of the more unusual or bizarre research projects being financed by the Pentagon:


Beef jerky by the sheet -- The Pentagon is breaking into the meat market by using funds from a weapons research program to develop its own brand of beef jerky. The Foreign Comparative Testing program has spent $1.5 million to produce a beef jerky roll up that, according to the Pentagon, “can be consumed as a savory snack or used as a filling for a shelf stable sandwich.” The FCT has as its mission statement “to improve U.S. war fighter’s capabilities.”

Coffee Break Smartphone Apps -- Not sure if you’re ready for your afternoon cup of coffee? Not to worry. Thanks to the Pentagon, there is now an app for that. The DOD funded research for the development of an iPhone app “intended to help people manage their caffeine consumption to suit their lifestyles,” according to Coburn’s report. All you have to do is input the type of caffeinated beverage you consumed and it will calculate your recommended caffeine levels for the next 24 hours.  Problem is, two were already invented.

Fish and Democracy -- Tired of political gridlock and partisan-divide?  So is the Pentagon. That’s why it handed Princeton University a $5.2 million research grant to determine whether fish can teach us how to achieve democratic consensus. According to the researchers, several experiments on fish, paired with mathematical models and computer simulations, can provide insights into humans’ political behavior.”  Or so says Charlie Tuna.

Regional Twitter Slang -- Both the Navy and the Air Force funded a study concluding that people from New York used different jargon on Twitter than people in California.  Duh! Analysis from the study: “Postings on Twitter reflect some well known regionalisms…In northern California, something that’s cool is ‘koo’ in tweets, while in southern California, it’s ‘coo.’ In many cities, something is ‘sumthin,’ but tweets in New York City favor ‘suttin.’”… Now we know.

Birds of a (Black) Feather --The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) funded a $300,000 study by Brown University to identify the color of the first prehistoric bird.  It was black.

Interstellar Space Travel --  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched the “100 Year Starship Effort” aimed at making interstellar space travel “possible and feasible” within the next century. So far DARPA has spent over $600,000 to facilitate a “space travel enthusiast” community, including $100,000 workshops that have spawned such discussion as “what kind of attire interstellar space explorers should don on their expeditions.”

Robots and Children -- The DOD spent $450,000 to study the interaction between babies and robots. Researchers observed a group of 18-month-old babies individual interactions with
a robot named “Morphy” from 2009 to 2012.