Dec. 23, 2010 -- A team of scientists who study pollution's role in global warming are outraged at a GOP Senator who, they say, has maligned their work as wasteful and petty by describing it as a study of "cow burps."
"This was not funded with earmarks and it was not a study about cow burps," said John Aber, an environmental scientist and provost of the University of New Hampshire.
"It's not wasteful," he said. "It's important."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R- Okla., released on Monday his annual "Wastebook" report, a look at 100 projects that received federal funding which, he says, contributed to record deficits in the past year.
Among those projects was a $700,000 grant from the Department of Agriculture to a team of environmental scientists at the University of New Hampshire to study greenhouse gas emissions – the chemicals associated with global warming – in the dairy industry.
Coburn's "Wastebook" quotes one of the project's researchers telling a local New Hampshire paper that "cows emit most of their methane through belching, only a small fraction from flatulence."
Scientists at the University of New Hampshire say Coburn has cherry picked quotes and taken things out of context in an effort to undermine their research. They say the project's findings will not only help the environment, but also farmers and businesses involved in the dairy industry.
"What's saddest about these kinds of lists is they don't represent any kind of detailed look at the work being performed," said Aber.
"This is a caricature of the research based on a few words or phrases for political gain," Aber said. "It was competitive. Much of the research was about how nitrogen in particular, affects ground water."
"Federal Study Investigates Cow Burps" is how the research is described in the "Wastebook," but Aber said it's a far more sophisticated look at how different toxic chemicals, particularly nitrogen, produced by dairy farming can be mitigated to reduce greenhouse gases.
Furthermore, Aber said, the project was commissioned by the Department of Agriculture and was competitively bid on by different universities.
A spokesman for Sen. Coburn said the projects were never described as an earmark, but were nonetheless " egregious." The spokesman said even state officials had questioned the worthiness of the project.
On Monday the senator told ABC News exclusively that if most Americans knew how their tax dollars were being spent, they would demand projects be excluded from federal funding.
"I would tell you that there's hundreds of billions of dollars every year, that if the American taxpayer could go down through it, they'd say 'wipe this off, this off, this off...we don't think any of this is important,'" Coburn said.
But even Coburn acknowledges that in a federal budget that exceeds $1trillion, his examples – like the dairy cow study – represent a tiny fraction.
"In terms of the size of the fed budget, the examples are inconsequential but that's not what we're trying to get to," Coburn said.
"It's the lack of attentiveness and the lack of structured decision making that's being carried on by Congress that allows these things to continue."