Goofy Stimulus Projects Have Real Value
Posted on Nov 5, 2009
Don’t be fooled by stimulus critics who cite expenditures such as the “electric fish orchestra” (actually an educational demonstration of a larger project related to robotics and prosthetics) or trips to resorts (to train special-ed teachers). “Waste,” as ProPublica reports, “is in the eye of the beholder.”
The Obama administration has cut some projects that just sound bad—freezing fish sperm, cleaning up bird droppings and the like—but sounding bad shouldn’t be the standard (and perhaps it’s not). The question is, would the supplemental freezer at the Gavin’s Point National Fish Hatchery and other purchases have generated or saved jobs? —PZS
Among the 150,000 stimulus expenditures released last week are dozens of iPods, toilets and trips to resort hotels. But, according to the reports, those seemingly questionable purchases are being used to enhance technology in the classroom, make bathrooms accessible to the disabled and train special education teachers.
[...] The award for most unusual stimulus project could perhaps go to Malcolm MacIver, a neurobiology and engineering professor at Northwestern University.
MacIver received a $1.25 million grant to use electric fish from the Amazon to study how animals take in sensory information to move quickly in any direction. The research could help in the development of underwater robots to find the source of toxic leaks. Further in the future, it could lead to new, far more agile prosthetics.
For public outreach – a component of most National Science Foundation  grants – MacIver has proposed an interactive art exhibit. Sixteen species of electric fish will be arranged in sculpted fish tanks. The tanks will be connected to an amplifier that can convert the different frequencies that the fish emit into sound. Using a hacked controller from the Nintendo Wii video game system, visitors will be able to turn the amplifiers on and off, essentially conducting an orchestra.
Flickr / lucianvenutian
One person’s port-a-potty is another’s job creation box.