Scientists Are Putting Mountain Lions on Treadmills—and That’s Just Good, If Weird, Science

Politicians’ efforts to discredit strange-sounding experiments undermine critical research.

(Photo: Courtesy Nancy Howard, Colorado Parks & Wildlife)

Nov 14, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

In 1882, a congressman from Alabama took the House floor to rant about a recent study showing that primitive birds had reptile-like teeth. “Birds with teeth!” Hilary Herbert cried, “That’s where your hard-earned money goes, folks—on some professor’s silly birds with teeth.”

As it happened, those birds were one of the great advances in our understanding of life on Earth, hinting at what we now know: Birds evolved from dinosaurs. But with a politician’s instinct for the kill, Herbert simply latched onto the headline-worthy phrase “birds with teeth” and rode it hard. A telegram from a government official soon advised the scientist, “Appropriations cut off. Please send your resignation at once.”

Not much has changed in the 132 years since then. Using a silly-sounding phrase to ridicule scientific research is still a favorite device of cheap-trick politicians, and wildlife studies are an especially tempting target, as Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, recently demonstrated.

First, the background: Wildlife researchers customarily use radio collars equipped with GPS to track animals and figure out where they’ve been—but those collars don’t show much about what an animal has been doing. A new collar changes that, with accelerometers to monitor the critter’s position and acceleration. That’s recently enabled scientists working with a National Science Foundation grant to study how mountain lions in California behave as they search for their prey, stalk it, and finally pounce. Before they could try these new collars in the field, though, the researchers had to calibrate them. That meant training captive mountain lions to walk on a treadmill. You can imagine how that sounded to a politician looking for a little headline bait. But hang on. The study was important enough that it was recently published in Science, one of the world’s premier scientific journals.

That wasn’t good enough for Sen. Coburn. He publishes a “Wastebook” every year, a list of government expenditures that he thinks are a waste of our tax dollars. He’s basically just recycling a favorite device of the late Sen. William Proxmire, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who liked to hand out the “Golden Fleece Award” to projects he viewed as wasteful. Coburn’s latest Wastebook features several NSF-funded research projects, and coming in at number four on the 100-item list is “Mountain Lions on a Treadmill.”

This time, though, the researcher fought back, in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times. “Our goal was to provide a new tool for wildlife conservation,” wrote Terrie M. Williams, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The wildlife collars we designed can be used to avoid human-animal conflicts by predicting when and where predatory animals hunt. In the process, they will help save human lives, our pets and livestock, as well as the large predatory mammals that represent the ‘top-of-the-food chain’ glue holding our ecosystems together. It is a problem that’s all too familiar in densely populated California, where human-wildlife encounters have increased.”

Let’s make that a little more clear: The study could help save taxpayers from being mauled or killed by big scary predators. (OK, probably not Oklahoma taxpayers. So never mind.) Reducing wildlife conflict is also a good thing for the predators, which are part of our national heritage. But instead of being congratulated, Williams suddenly found her work being lampooned from coast to coast as “dubious,” “absurd,” “ridiculous,” “outlandish,” and worse.

Neither Coburn nor his staff bothered to contact Williams, or any members of her research team, to check their facts ahead of time. Heck, they probably never even bothered to read the study, or they might have seen that the treadmill training was a minor part of it. What’s more, Williams wrote, “my time involving the treadmill-walking mountain lions and their trainers was never charged to the grant.”

In the Wastebook write-up, Coburn acknowledged that “support for basic science is not itself wasteful.” So what did he find so offensive about Williams’ project, which actually went beyond basic science to show applications in real life? Here’s my guess: Coburn just liked the click-bait quality of the words “mountain lions on a treadmill.”

Applying to the National Science Foundation for biological research funding is a harrowing process. Scientists submit a pre-proposal. If they’re lucky, the NSF invites them to submit a full proposal, consisting of detailed descriptions of the intended research with exhaustively researched citations and mountains of evidence explaining why the research is important. Getting funded to study lions, wolves, or other wildlife species is particularly difficult, according to Williams, who says proposals for single-celled organisms are up to 44 times more likely to succeed.

Cynical politicians like Coburn just mean to make the application process even more frustrating, especially for wildlife researchers. Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has also piled on, recently demanding “every e-mail, letter, memorandum, record, note, text message, all peer reviews” for 11 NSF grants, including one of the grants that supported the mountain lion study.

Williams isn’t the only one worried by this antiscience witch hunt. “Our broader concern is this,” the Association of American Universities declared in a statement released on Monday, “that NSF will be pressured to fund only ‘safe’ research that does not attract political attention…and that NSF peer reviewers will therefore reject potentially important but odd-sounding proposals.” It notes that “several projects are being investigated for no apparent reason other than the sound of their titles.”

The Republican intolerance for scientific research—on wild animals, the environment, climate change, you name it—scares me. Let me give you one quick example of what we could lose because of the tendency to “ridicule scientific research projects by caricature,” as columnist Michael Hiltzik put it earlier this week. Back in 1966, NSF funded a project that we could easily laugh off as “Scientists Go to the Park and Look at Slime.” But that study of bacteria living in geysers and thermal springs at Yellowstone National Park resulted in the discovery of Thermus aquaticus, a bacteria that yielded an enzyme called Taq. And that enzyme is an essential ingredient of every DNA study performed everywhere in the world. Without it, DNA testing for diseases, and the entire modern science of genomics, would be impossible.

Coburn’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In fairness, I want to give the last word to him anyway. In 2009, he declared, “I am not the smartest man in the world,” and for once he was telling the truth. Am I taking his words out of context? Maybe so, but that’s just how the Coburns of the world like to operate.