Taxpayer-Funded 'Robo-squirrel' Makes Senator's 2012 'Wastebook'

San Diego State University's tax-funded 'robo-squirrel' criticized.

ByABC News
October 17, 2012, 1:55 PM

Oct. 17, 2012 — -- San Diego State University's taxpayer-funded project to invent a "robo-squirrel" has been criticized as a boondoggle by an Oklahoma senator, but the school defends the endeavor, saying the grant that funded the project also helped support the education of 34 students.

Researchers at SDSU used funds from a $325,000 grant provided by the taxpayer-bankrolled National Science Foundation on the invention of a robotic squirrel used for research. This week, Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn lambasted the project as a waste of money exemplifying what needs to be excised from government spending.

"The problem in Washington is politicians are very specific about what we should fund, but not specific about what we should cut. As a result, we are chasing robotic squirrels and countless other low-priority projects over a fiscal cliff," Coburn said in a statement released Monday.

Coburn included SDSU's robotic squirrel as an example in his annual "Wastebook," which this year highlights what he views as $18 billion in examples of taxpayer dollars spent in "egregious ways" in 2012. Other examples cited by Sen. Coburn include Moroccan pottery classes and efforts to promote caviar consumption and production.

The robotic squirrel research proved that squirrels stave off one of their most deadly predators -- the rattlesnake -- by wagging their tails. Researchers at SDSU recreated ground squirrel and rattlesnake interactions in natural environments.

SDSU responded to the robotic squirrel's inclusion on Coburn's "Wastebook" this week, saying that many scientists studying animal behavior and communication now use bio-robotic animal models.

"[These models] are powerful new tools to examine basic biology. Robotic animals allow us to perform controlled experiments in ways that cannot be done with live animals. We have also developed new techniques for deploying robotic devices in rugged field conditions," SDSU said in the statement.

Greg Block, an SDSU spokesman, said that the majority of the grant went to fund the training and education on four graduate students and 30 undergraduates.

"A small part of the money was spent on building the squirrel, the rest was spent on the students. This is how National Science Foundation grants work," Block told ABC News.

Block also questioned why Coburn included the money SDSU received in his 2012 list, and whether he had researched how the grant money was partitioned out.

John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, said that the senator devotes resources on oversight on all areas of federal government, and that the robotic squirrel example stood out.

"Every time we do a report, every recipient will have a rationale, but they rarely provide detail or background material … if the university wants to spend money on students, that's fine. I'm not sure taxpayers would agree that we need to finance robotic squirrels," he said.

Hart added that although the award abstract for the $325,000 to the National Science Foundation did mention funding for students, he called it "throwaway language."

"[The language is] used to rationalize and make politicians feel good about these projects," he said. "Senator Coburn is not against studying the squirrels. But we don't need to borrow money from the future generations and overseas to do so. "