Deep in the bowels of the federal government's budget is an allocation that would take most Americans by surprise: $600,000 in tax money is being spent on researching the sex lives of South African ground squirrels.
Last year, American taxpayers funneled nearly a trillion dollars into the U.S. treasury. Hundreds of millions of those dollars funded scientific research aimed at finding a cure for cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease. But millions of American tax dollars have also been spent on studies that critics say have little benefit for taxpayers.
The study about the evolution of squirrel breeding is a prime example. Government waste groups contend that studying the sex habits of African squirrels is exactly the kind of research taxpayers shouldn't be paying for.
"Squirrel mating seems to be on the low end of the priority scale ... with all the other priorities in this country," said Tom Schatz, president of the Washington-based Citizens Against Government Waste, the nation's largest taxpayer advocacy group. "People are dying of heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's and AIDS and we're looking at how squirrels mate."
In the first of a three-part Good Morning America series, called "You Paid for It," ABCNEWS' Bob Woodruff took a look at some of the things your tax dollars are paying for.
Studying Sex and Squirrels
Jane Waterman is the researcher studying squirrels, through a National Science Foundation grant. The University of Central Florida biologist travels to Africa as part of a five-year project to observe ground squirrels.
"What I study is sex and squirrels," Waterman said.
She says the furry animals are fascinating because male African squirrels are so friendly to each other. They only time they spend with females is for sex and they don't fight over females as American squirrels do.
"They hang out in large male bands and they like each other," she said. That is a remarkable thing to see in a ground squirrel and a mammal. Waterman believes that studying the evolution of squirrel breeding gives us a better understanding of our environment, and ourselves.
Be that as it may, Waterman's critics argue that taxpayers should not be footing the $600,000 bill.
"Haven't these guys heard of private universities, private endowments, private foundations," asked Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union. "There are lots of people interested in these issues but there are 120 million taxpayers who want to know why are we funding this?"
Study Looks at Monkey Anxiety
At the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, monkeys are part of a taxpayer-funded study to determine if shyness in children can lead to depression later in life. In one of the studies, researchers startled monkeys with toy cars to measure how threats affect anxious behavior.
Researchers also flew gliders over the monkey's heads, monitoring their heart rates and conducting blood tests to measure anxiety levels.
Dr. Judi Cameron, the researcher conducting the monkey studies, declined an interview.
But the university said that her work is of tremendous scientific and clinical value in trying to uncover the causes of anxiety and depression in children. Cameron is testing new medications to reduce anxious behavior.
‘Priorities Out of Whack’