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When the federal government gets ridiculed for doing a study on what seems like a wacky phenomenon, it always sounds like the research was concocted by Leno or Letterman.
Then Uncle Sam goes and funds another study that sounds even crazier.
Spending tax dollars in this way amounts to juicy red meat for budget hawks such as Mark Neumann, one of the Republicans running for a U.S. Senate seat from Wisconsin in 2012.
On Jan. 26, 2012, the former congressman put out a list of 10 federal programs he’d trim or eliminate that he said would save $138 billion.
Near the bottom of the list was … eliminating a federal study!
Neumann claimed he could save $175,587 by ending a study of the "connection between cocaine and risky sex habits of the Japanese quail."
We wondered: Which comedian was Neumann citing as his source?
So is Uncle Sam really spending six figures just to observe coked-up copulating quails? Or is there more to the study?
Asked for backup, Neumann campaign spokesman Chris Lato showed us that in January 2011, the National Institutes of Health awarded a $175,587 grant to a University of Kentucky psychology professor for an "enhancement of sexual motivaton" project.
Indeed, the sex habits of Japanese quail on cocaine were to be observed.
So, Neumann is correct on the cost and the basic set-up of the study.
Lato also cited an article in The Daily Caller, a conservative-leaning news web site. The article pointed out that the project is actually a five-year study and it quoted a university official defending it.
The grant information shows the government launched the project with a $181,406 award in January 2010. It added the $175,587 cited by Neumann in 2011 and another $175,211 in February 2012. The study is slated to continue through January 2015.
The grant document explains why Japanese quail were chosen and how the study relates to humans:
"The goal of the proposed experiments is to utilize an animal model whose sexual behavior system has been well-studied, Japanese quail. In addition to the benefits of using quail to study sexual behavior, the use of a visually-oriented species in studying drug effects may be of additional relevance to studying human drug addiction.
"We currently have preliminary evidence in male Japanese quail that pre-exposure to cocaine enhances sexual motivation. This finding ties in well with clinical observations that indicate that cocaine use in humans may increase sexual motivation, thereby increasing the likelihood of the occurrence of high-risk sexual behavior," such as unprotected sex and increased number of sexual partners.
The Daily Caller article provided by Neumann’s campaign noted that James Tracy, the vice president for research at the University of Kentucky, defended the study.
"Why Japanese quail? Cocaine abuse in humans has been shown clinically that it leads to risky sexual behavior, they have more sexual partners, and that leads to more sexually transmitted diseases," Tracy told a Kentucky TV station.
"It's important to look what is behind the title (of the study). You are limited to only 64 characters" in applying for the federal grant, he said.
Also backing the study is chronobiologist Bora Zivkovic, blog editor of Scientific American, which describes itself as the "leading source and authority for science, technology information and policy for a general audience."
Zivkovic said in the magazine he spent 10 years studying the Japanese quail and that the bird has been used in laboratory research since at least 1914.
"Studying effects of cocaine on reproductive behavior is so much more efficient in a species in which we do not have to start from scratch – we already know so much about its brain, behavior and reproduction, we can move on to more sophisticated studies than just the first exploratory ‘basic experiments.’ Thus we can make faster progress. This is an efficient approach," Zivkovic wrote.
Whether it’s a good use of tax money to do more study on quail and sex and cocaine isn’t a question we’re here to settle.
But the study Neumann cited isn’t intended merely to learn about birds, but about drug abuse and sexual habits of humans that can lead to public health problems.
Neumann said he could save $175,587 by eliminating a study of the "connection between cocaine and risky sex habits of the Japanese quail." A grant for that amount was awarded for such a study in 2011, another was made in 2012 and more are slated to be made.
But the scope of the study is much larger than what Neumann suggests by citing only the title.
Neumann’s claim was accurate, but needed additional information. We don’t know how Leno or Letterman would rule, but that’s our definition of Mostly True.
Mark Neumann campaign, news release, Jan. 26, 2012
JSOnline.com, "Neumann details more ideas for cutting federal budget," Jan. 26, 2012
Scientific American, "Cocaine and the sexual habits of quail, or, why does NIH fund what it does?," Dec. 28, 2011
Interview and email interview, Mark Neumann campaign spokesman Chris Lato, Feb. 15, 2012
Interview, Mark Neumann campaign manager Chip Englander, Feb. 16, 2012
National Institutes of Health, enhancement of sexual motivaton project
The Daily Caller, "Wisc. Senate candidate: Defund cocaine and quail sex study," Jan. 28, 2012
WKYT-TV, "Research at UK involving cocaine, quails and sex drive stirs controversy," Dec. 22, 2011
Scientific American, "The wonderful quail … and what Sen. Coburn should learn about it," Dec. 28, 2011
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