Stand up for the facts!

Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.

More Info

I would like to contribute

The humble gingerbread house (though not one of those above) has become the target of misinformed and dated claims about wasteful federal spending. (AP) The humble gingerbread house (though not one of those above) has become the target of misinformed and dated claims about wasteful federal spending. (AP)

The humble gingerbread house (though not one of those above) has become the target of misinformed and dated claims about wasteful federal spending. (AP)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg May 24, 2021

Fish treadmills, earthquake-proof gingerbread houses? Not so fast

If Your Time is short

  • Around 2012, researchers looking into the emergence of life on land used a land-walking fish and a type of treadmill to test the effect of oxygen levels on endurance. The National Science Foundation funded the study.

  • An Oregon science museum taught a Christmas-time class in earthquake resistant architecture and invited participants to test what they learned on gingerbread houses they built. The museum used about $3,400 in federal dollars.

Josh Mandel, an Ohio politician who describes himself as the first statewide Ohio official to support former President Donald Trump, voiced concern over government waste.

"The federal government spent over $500k trying to force fish to exercise on treadmills, an additional $150k to see if gingerbread houses are earthquake proof, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg," Mandel tweeted May 21. "Wasteful spending is robbing America’s future, it must be exposed and stopped!"

Mandel’s warnings come a bit late. Former Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake listed them in his 2017 Wastebook

The fish project, funded with $560,536 from the National Science Foundation, took place at the University of California-San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Mudskipper fish, a sort that can live and walk out of water, were put in a chamber and placed on a well-moistened treadmill. Researchers found that the fish could exercise longer when oxygen levels were higher.

They took this to suggest that rising oxygen levels sped the emergence of animals on land hundreds of millions of years ago.

The project lasted from 2009 to 2013.

What Mandel took to be a test of earthquake readiness was actually a twist on the traditional gingerbread house at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. In 2016, for a price of $25 per house, adults spent an evening hearing architects describe how buildings are designed to withstand earthquakes. Then, participants had a chance to design, build and test their own quake-proof gingerbread house. They put their creations on a shaking platform and watched if it held up or crumbled.

"We have long considered a holiday-themed program for OMSI and this was the perfect fit, marrying food science with a beloved holiday tradition," said Andrea Edgecombe, the museum’s event director, in 2016.

Featured Fact-check

Mandel made too much of the federal contribution to the party, however. According to museum president Erin Graham, the gingerbread workshops were part of a larger effort to make use of the museum’s café outside of typical lunchtime hours. 

"The project funds spent on the workshops was only $3,432," Graham said.

On average, the federal government sends the Oregon museum a grant in the neighborhood of $150,000 per year. The purpose is to "strengthen the ability of an individual museum to serve the public more effectively."

The money is matched with local and state dollars. In the 2017-18 period for example, Washington’s $149,820 was matched with $164,893 from other sources.

The gingerbread earthquake class proved to be popular, so the museum continued to offer it through at least 2018.

We tweeted to Mandel to ask him about the lateness of his heads-up on Washington profligacy. We did not hear back, but if we do, we will add his comments to this piece.

Our ruling

Mandel warned about wasteful spending, and cited the examples of $500,000 on a treadmill for fish and $150,000 to see if gingerbread houses are earthquake-proof.

Waste is in the eye of the beholder, but Mandel failed to notice that the fish experiment was part of research into the evolution of life on land. It ended in 2013. He blamed the federal government for funding a museum class that injected a bit of fun into learning about resilient building design. But he greatly exaggerated the federal impact; Washington covered about $3,400 of the workshop, not the $150,000 he said.

Mandel recycled old complaints, and mischaracterized what was funded. We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

Josh Mandel, tweet, May 21, 2021

Office of Sen. Jeff Flake, Wastebook, January 2017

National Science Foundation, Collaborative Research: Searching for Links Between Genotype and Phenotype in the Evolution of Air Breathing, Hypoxia, and Terrestriality in Gobies, Feb. 10, 2012

USA Spending, CFDA grant MA-10-15-0153-15, Aug. 12, 2015

USA Spending, CFDA grant MA-10-16-0340-16, Aug. 16, 2016

USA Spending, CDFA grant MA-10-18-0388-18, Aug. 16, 2018

USA Spending, CFDA grant MA-40-19-0291-19, Aug. 6, 2019 

Portland Tribune, OMSI exhibit cooks up some sweet science, Nov. 28, 2016

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Gingerbread adventures returns, Nov. 14, 2018

ProPublica Nonprofit Explorer, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, 2018

Email exchange, Erin Graham, president and CEO, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, May 23, 2021


Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Jon Greenberg

Fish treadmills, earthquake-proof gingerbread houses? Not so fast

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up