San Diego State defends using $325,000 in federal tax dollars on RoboSquirrel

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Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s “Wastebook 2012” recently identified 100 egregiously inessential projects funded by American taxpayers to the tune of over $18 billion, including San Diego State University (SDSU) and the University of California, Davis’ RoboSquirrel — a project to build a better, stronger, faster artificial robotic squirrel using a $325,000 National Science Foundation grant.

The goal of the project is to study interactions between squirrels and rattlesnakes in the wilderness. The robot’s primary mission, The Daily Aztec reports, is to mimic the way squirrels fend off snake attacks by rapidly wagging their tails.

As Coburn’s report explains, RoboSquirrel is “a taxidermied actual squirrel that is stored with live squirrels so it smells real. The body and tail are heated with copper wiring, so the snake can see the squirrel’s heat signature.”

According to The Daily Aztec, SDSU Director of Media Relations Greg Block answered Coburn’s condemnation by noting that researchers spent only a small portion of the grant on the actual robot squirrel. Four graduate students and some 30 undergraduate students received the bulk of the $325,000 federal haul.

Presumably, then, hundreds of thousands of dollars went to portions of the tuition, expenses and training of roughly three dozen students so they could participate in a program where the centerpiece is a fake squirrel.

“Support of this research program goes toward [the students’] graduate degrees and trains the next generation of scientists and engineers,” SDSU assistant professor of biology Rulon Clark said.

Clark, the primary scientist overseeing RoboSquirrel, said that students gain hands-on experience and develop important skills through this study and similar studies.

“If you cut funding to basic science, you are cutting the opportunities of the student that can’t be taught in the classroom” Clark told The Daily Aztec.

Taxpayers can expect to pay for more cyborg rodents in the future. The College Fix reports that RoboSquirrel 2.0 and, no doubt more momentously, RoboKangarooRat, are coming soon.

Another lowlight from “Wastebook 2012” include a $67,926 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to Syracuse University to oversee “Students Against Trash” — a poster contest for students in New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico.

Students Against Trash share the limelight with the National Science Foundation’s support for the creation of a video game called Prom Week, which simulates “the drama, romance and backstabbing of the frantic week before the prom.”

The professor who oversaw the project used part of a $516,000 grant and calls the game “a new and powerful mode of personal expression.”

As of Oct. 31, Prom Week’s Facebook page has 188 “Likes.” It has been on Facebook since February.

New Mexico State University in Las Cruces has also taken federal tax money to grapple with the vexing moral question of our time: “Should we want to be happy?” The school used a $24,995 grant to create a college-level course on the issue. Among other things, enrolled students will set up philosophy booths (perhaps in the manner of Lucy Van Pelt) where students will ask each other to describe happiness.

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