News Story

Black Holes and Plankton Research Get Stimulus Spending

There was an $835,000 Michigan State University study on the ecology of plankton, a $440,000 University of Michigan study on galaxies with black holes and a $322,000 Eastern Michigan University study on languages of the Arctic.

All were paid for by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the federal stimulus program that Congress approved in 2009 to help jump-start the economy.

While shovel-ready construction jobs got most of the media attention, there was $3 billion given out by the National Science Foundation to support academic research as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

It raises a question about the stimulus program's approach to solving Michigan's economic woes, said Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

McHugh said the stimulus represented a huge backlog of Democrat spending desires waiting to be released once they had control of the White House and Congress.

"It opened the floodgates to this pent-up political desire," McHugh said. "This thing was just, 'Katy bar the door. What do you want money for?' They got to stick all their little pet stuff in there. " 

"It puts money into the pockets of well-paid academics who have almost total job security," McHugh said. "It does not put unemployed people to work."

One University of Michigan researcher, who had a $78,400 salary in 2009 according to U-M records, received a $440,112 grant courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Her study? She will look at galaxies that harbor supermassive black holes at their centers.

U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the grant covered the four years' worth of expenses for the researcher and an assistant.

"It puts people to work," Fitzgerald said. "Just like a road project puts people to work."

But Leon Drolet, chairman of the Michigan Taxpayers Association, questioned why stimulus money went to academic researchers already working in a state decimated by unemployment.

"In the case of the black hole lady ... she already has a job," Drolet said. "How did it end up supporting her job instead of an unemployed person in Michigan? There is no doubt that money is going to a black hole. It's not helping anyone in this galaxy. It will benefit the pet projects of these government agencies."

And some of the research wouldn't have been funded had it not been for the federal stimulus program.

According to an e-mail from Caryn Charter, associate director of the officer of research development at Eastern Michigan University, one of their research grants was originally rejected by the National Institutes of Health. But after receiving stimulus money, the NIH went back and funded it.

What was the project?

It was a $229,238 study to develop and test "the feasibility of using individually tailored theoretically-based intervention strategies to promote mammography screening among non-adherent Chinese American women."

"This is not what people had in mind when they said they were stimulating the jobs sector." said Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group in Washington, D.C. "This is all stuff that would not have been funded, that couldn't pass muster under normal budgeting circumstances. This was a perfect opportunity to bypass the normal budgeting process. Whenever you say, 'Let's spend $862 billion as fast as we can,' that is a prescription for wasteful spending."

There were millions of dollars spent on academic research in this state by the federal stimulus program.

Some other items include:

  • $835,660 to Michigan State University for the study of "complex ecological system using plankton communities as a model system." The study summary said it would use mathematical tools to "support investigations of interactions between plankton and creatures that feed on them. ..."
  • A $464,974 MSU study on "contributions of voice pitch, loudness, and speech rate ... to understanding spoken words."
  • A $421,610 MSU study to improve understanding of low-level jets and the impact of jet streams. The study summary states it is believed that the jet streams are likely "to have a substantial influence on regional weather and climate."
  • A $322,823 Eastern Michigan University study that will "work on language mapping, language relationships and language change in the Arctic."

Drolet said Michigan's unemployed should learn how to become grant writers.

"Learn a skill on how to get handouts from federal and state bureaucracies," he said. "That is where these jobs monies seem to end up. It almost has nothing to do with what citizens would see as value for that money."


Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.