Fear and Loathing in Research Administration?

One of our local radio stations has a daily trivia contest, which falls around the time that I drive my children to school in the morning.  The prize is a pizza and a couple of movie passes, but the main purpose of calling in is to demonstrate to my children just how much pointless information fills their father’s head.  They are young, and fortunately still seem impressed by this.

The answer to the trivia question one day was the 1998 film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and it proved to be a fine example of pointless information, since I have neither seen the film, nor read the book on which it is based.  I am also certain that my children have never heard of it.

What does any of this have to do with research administration?

The on-air staff at many radio stations use web sites to find trending headlines, and invite listeners to provide feedback.  After taking down information so I could collect my prize, the DJ asked me about a study that he was going to bring up later.  His question was whether I thought it was the sort of thing that university researchers should be spending money investigating.

As far as I know, this was a private conversation, since he was not broadcasting at the time.  I had just called in for the trivia contest, and had no reason to expect that “today’s modern mix” would include a question about research administration.

Of course, it is probably safe to say that he had no reason to expect that I spend a large part of my day thinking about research administration.  We are not a particularly large demographic.

Something to keep in mind about headlines is that their purpose is to attract attention.  They reduce a subject to a phrase that triggers an immediate reaction.  With many sources competing for attention, there is a natural tendency to edit the wording to “juice” the story.  The problem creeps in when each subsequent reporter makes “minor” changes to “strengthen” a specific point they want to make.

I told him that there might be some legitimate science behind the study, and then shared the infamous “Shrimp on a Treadmill” example that made headlines back in 2011.  Video from that project went viral on the internet.  Senator Tom Coburn then cited the project in his annual report on wasteful spending.

Researchers at the Grice Marine Laboratory at the College of Charleston, South Carolina have received at least 12 NSF grants totaling over $3 million over the last decade for their work, including a $559,681 award for “Impaired Metabolism and Performance in Crustaceans Exposed to Bacteria.”

As the story circulated, different sources incorrectly stated that the entire amount of all NSF awards to the college went toward the treadmill experiment or misrepresented the purpose of the project.

Information could be found in the NSF award abstract for the project.

The current studies test the idea that, even in coastal waters where levels of dissolved oxygen are high, the act of launching an immune defense against bacteria interferes with the ability of shrimp and crabs to engage in normal activities of swimming or feeding and that this effect will be exacerbated by environmental stress, such as hypoxia… It is expected that these studies will show that, at least among crustaceans, the immune response itself may make it more difficult for an organism to respond to hypoxic environments or to engage in significant physical activity. While engaged in this research, which addresses questions related to the health of ecologically and economically important species, these investigators will continue to teach, train and publish with students from four primarily undergraduate institutions in the US.

Headlines calling out “$3 million” for “shrimp on a treadmill” attract attention.

Certainly they attract more attention than “$559,681 over 5 years” to study how bacterial infection and oxygen deprivation affect shellfish.  I had to search for information on the importance of shellfish to the state economy, but that is why I have a lot of pointless information in my head.

I still would not be qualified to say whether this is the sort of thing that university researchers should be spending time and money investigating, but the additional information returns the debate to actual cost and potential benefit.  According to one phrase, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.  Of course, not everyone even agrees on where the phrase originated.

One of the most important functions of research administration is maintaining the integrity of the work done by the researchers.  This includes ensuring compliance with proposal requirements, review of the research protocols and managing conflict of interest.

This also includes being aware of public perception, especially given current concerns over government spending and budget cuts to other programs.  A comment can turn viral, and a bad impression becomes a fact of its own.  Good research administration demonstrates a healthy respect for public funds, as well as a healthy respect for good scientific methods.

It is also important to recognize that the audience is not just the research community.  The video of the shrimp was viewed over 2 million times on YouTube in various forms.

We finished the call, and I dropped my children off at school, after we heard the brief recording of my answering the trivia question on the radio.  I stopped back at the house for a few minutes to find the study that the DJ had mentioned, and sent him a link to the actual journal article along with a summary.

My wife told me that I had probably traumatized my audience, both the DJ and our children, but the boys were eager for me to call in again (unfortunately there is a 30 day rule).  A few days later I got a response from the DJ thanking me for the information, and of course, thank you for listening.

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