Archive for January, 2015


I had a 1700-word post all ready to go, and then WordPress decided to delete it. Sigh. Here’s my attempted reconstruction of this highly informative topic:

Federal research grants are important. They provide money for a huge range of scientific research that otherwise would not be done. We, as a society, have decided that they are good, though both the left and right and everyone in between may disagree about specific programs.

Because they are public, certain laws and regulations exist whereby the public gets to know what their tax money is going to. And, there exist many website that will let you search them. Here’s one that I have found useful because it links to the search forms for what looks like all federal research funding agencies.

What information is shown is somewhat variable, but in general, you will find: The funding agency, the PI (principle investigator), the PI’s institution, Co-Is (co-investigators), the date the funding starts, the date the funding ends, the amount of funding, and an abstract that describes the research that was provided within the proposal. You won’t find the actual proposal because it contains proprietary information — not only sometimes classified information, but also the ideas and methodology behind the proposal (so the team doesn’t get “scooped”), and even the layout and style of the proposal itself (trust me, there are many ways to write a proposal, and some of them are very effective, while others are very ineffective).

The problem with this information is that to a non-expert, and without any of the broader context of the many pages explaining what the proposal may do and the implications for it beyond the immediate research, the proposal easily looks like a waste of money to the average person. And, despite a tiny fraction of the federal budget going to research grants, various bloggers, reporters, and even congresspersons will often pull up a random title and claim that it’s an amazing example of government waste.

Such seems to have been the case with a Free Beacon article titled, “Feds Spent $532,000 Studying Gay Hookup Apps” with the subtitle, “NIH project studied ‘arousal’ of gay men when using Grindr.” The image is of two men, ostensibly gay, laying on each other and smiling.

The World Net Daily subtitle is the same, but they slightly modified the title: “Feds Spent $432,000 Studying ‘Gay’-Hookup Apps.” See, they added a hyphen and put “gay” in “quotes” because “gay” is scary and fake and a choice, because it’s WND.

There are three distinct problems here, and I don’t know if there’s a good solution to any of them: (1) There is no context, making it easy to complain; (2) titles of proposals are often whimsical; and (3) people don’t realize that less than half of the money goes to the actual researcher(s).

The first issue is that when we write grant proposals, we write them at a level where someone in our field or closely related field can understand them. When I write a crater-related proposal, I try to generalize the abstract to explain to a general person familiar with planetary geology what I plan to do and why. I then spend several pages within the proposal giving background information so that someone who models the interiors of planets would be able to understand why I want to do an observational study of impact craters.

I don’t write my abstract so that someone who has a 9-5 job working for a law firm, or working retail, or who works in Congress, would understand it. That would simply require “dumbing it down” too much. I don’t mean to imply that those people are dumb; rather, we have a very limited amount of space to explain why we want to do the research, how we’re going to do it, the broader implications, the proposal team, the management structure, and justify the budget. If we also had to write it at a level that anyone could understand it, we’d never be able to get into details.

Therefore, what makes it into the abstract that would be made public should I win the grant will rarely make sense to a general person just picking it up randomly.

Similarly, we often write titles to try to stand out to the review panels. Something fun and whimsical, for example, to make someone smile. For example, one might entitle a proposal, “Studying Martian ‘Holes in One.'”

A congressional staffer or random blogger may pick that up thinking, “Wow, why is NASA funding something about golf on Mars?” In reality, my proposal is about studying meter- and decameter scale craters in a broad statistical study to try to understand where they are most common, how dense they are, and therefore what the likelihood is that a a future spacecraft may inadvertently land in one. This happened with the MER Opportunity when it landed on Mars eleven years ago. It turned out to be good because the crater’s walls let Opportunity see a lot of otherwise buried layers, and it was able to get out of the crater. But if the crater were a little steeper, or a little smaller, then the rover would not have been able to escape or it may have fallen over and not have been able to righten itself.

Now it seems much more important: You send a half-$billion craft to Mars, you’re going to be more willing to fund a $300k study into impact crater hazards for landing, right? But, a layperson may never get past the title and flag it for government waste.

And that leads into the third issue: We don’t get that money. On a proposal I wrote several years ago, just as an example, the total budget for the three-year proposal was $328k. Salary was $127k, a little over one-third of the total amount. That was my salary as a graduate student half-time for 1 year, and postdoc half-time for 2 years, and my then-advsior for 1 month each year. What did the other money go to? The vast majority was institutional overhead, which covers administration staff salary, budget office salary, building rent, lights, computer support, custodial staff, etc. Then there were benefits, like health insurance, life insurance, and retirement. There was also money in there for a new computer and software licenses so I could do the work. About $10k was travel to conferences and another $6k was publication costs: After all, I could do the most ground-breaking study ever, but if I never told anyone about it, then what’s the point?

So, while a study may look like it costs a lot, and overhead rates vary considerably across different institutions (and are generally higher at private companies versus public universities), a very very general rule-of-thumb is to divide the total amount by 3, and that’s salary.

That brings us back to the article in question. Now that you have all that in mind, let’s look at it. Using the NIH (National Institutes of Health) search form, here’s the grant, awarded to Dr. Karolynn Siegel, entitled, “Use of Smartphones Applications for Partnering Among MSM.” MSM is “men who have sex with men” (since many men are unwilling to identify as bi or gay but do have sex with other men).

While Free Beacon doesn’t seem to have much of a spin, and it does not allow comments so I can’t quite tell which end of the political spectrum it’s on, WND clearly does have an agenda: This study is a waste because who cares about gays (or “gays”) hooking up? What benefit could there possibly be!?

Well, take a moment and think more broadly about it from both a social and medical standpoint: Smartphones and GPS-enabled devices have drastically changed how we interact, so from a social standpoint we need research to better understand that phenomenon. From a health standpoint, it’s dramatically increased the ease of casual sex, especially among gay men where there is still a stigma of trolling the bars or streets for a partner. Heterosexuals have their own app (Tinder), and so the findings from a study of gay males hooking up could have implications for straight men and women, too. And, casual sex will increase the risk of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). So, from a public health standpoint, understanding a strong new vector for how diseases spread is the first step to trying to determine ways to minimize that risk. Both for straight and gay persons.

If the blogger or WND had bothered to read the abstract on the NIH site, they would have found that (emphasis mine):

The study aims are: 1. Examine how and why smartphone applications are used for sexual partnering, the situations and locations in which they are used, in order to gain insights into how these use patterns might contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 2. Investigate the process by which MSM use smartphone applications to find sexual partners (i.e., who they look for, how they present themselves, how they communicate, extent of safer sex negotiation,and disclosure) to gain insights into how this process may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 3. Investigate the sexual and emotional states (e.g., more/less urgency, arousal, impulsivity) that MSM experience when seeking or meeting sexual partners using smartphone applications and gain insights into how these states may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 4. Examine the perceived need and acceptability of a smartphone delivered intervention and assess what MSM perceive as needed components for a smartphone-based sexual risk reduction intervention.

It also contains a public health relevance statement (likely unique to the NIH, since I don’t have to do that for NASA).

Meanwhile, the cost – $432k – may seem high. But, divide by three, and we’re down to around $150k salary. For a medical researcher, working for two years, at maybe half or a third of their time on this particular grant, that doesn’t seem very high anymore. Especially if most of it is given to graduate students who will be conducting the actual interviews with the 60 MSM in the study and Dr. Siegel is there for a month a year to supervise and then more at the end to crunch the data. In medical studies, there’s also money that is sometimes paid out to participants as compensation (I have no idea if that’s the case in this study, but I know it happens in others).

And so, we went from a sensationalist headline that clearly is meant to drum up a specific reaction (government waste! who cares about gays!?) but that’s because it leaves out any form of context as to the broader implications of this kind of study and why it’s being done. It also completely ignores that the amount of money in the federal budget for government-funded scientific research is somewhere around 3.4%. (FY2015 budget is around $3.97T, but science is $135B, and just under half of that is defense, leaving 1.8% for non-defense.)

And, World Net Daily got that reaction. In the 22 hours the article on their site has been posted, they have gotten 42 comments. They broadly fit into saying that President Obama is gay (which is another odd conspiracy they’ve been floating for years, and remember that being gay on WND is bad), that this is government waste of tax money, and that the study is stupid because it’s about The Gays.

Ignoring the first, some examples of the second are:

    • dan690: “The government says there is no room in the budget for cuts. Here is an excellent example of where to cut and there are thousands more.”
    • Tomas Cruz: “And they wonder why we reject every call for more taxes for this or that because it ends up with this nonsense.”
    • James Frost: “What the hell is going on with our officials? They spend our money on conducting such stupid research. But what`s the use? They`d better spend money on veterans, poor families, security measures. This gays have too much public attention!”

And examples of the third are:

    • Sharknado: “A government of perverts…just great…thanks a lot.”
    • ThoLawn: “What was the purpose to spend (waste indeed) half of million dollars to interview all that gays? What they’re going to do with that “research” results? Would it help to solve any problems? What a stupidity…”
    • HardCorePress: “Talk about in your face government sponsored hommoman wanna pump a guys *** pervertedness. This type of blatant sin has been seen by God and God will send his wrath upon this country. May it be nuclear fire to cleanse the cancerous mass of homosexuality (the pinnacle of debauchery and Obamanibale hedonism).”
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Well, perhaps not “dazed,” but certainly very split in their opinion. This was one of those stories, just a few hours old as I’m posting it, that I clicked on just to see how people would react: “Supremes Rule for Bearded Muslim Inmate.” The rule was in place in Arkansas and 9 other states based on the idea of easy inmate recognition amongst guards and ability of inmates to hide contraband in their beards.

On the one hand, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled 9 to 0 that a prison in Arkansas (and among all Arkansas state prisons) that prohibited inmates from growing facial hair could not prohibit that. The Muslim inmate, Gregory Holt, wanted to grow it as part of his religious observance.

But on the other hand … he’s a Muslim!! And that’s enough for WND commenters to just hate it. Well, that and he’s a prisoner (“TruBluAmerican” wrote: “You’re in prison you pig, you have no rights beyond 3 squares and a roof over your head, which is MORE than a lot of law abiding people have!”)

And so, on the one hand, you have “kingdad” who wrote:

Be Glad that they chose to uphold Religious Liberty as their are more and bigger Religious liberty cases coming down the pike. Important cases compared to this minor case of insignificance. All the other states have rules that permit State Prison inmates to grow beards esp. if it is a part of their Religious beliefs. Other religions have beards that are also mandatory, some Jews, the Sikhs for example.

But you have a reply by “Elena” who wrote: “You think the SCOTUS will come to the rescue of the former Atlanta Fire Chief? Keep dreaming. Only non-Christians are protected.” (This is in reference to an Atlanta fire chief who was fired by the mayor because of his virulently anti-gay statements.) A view echoed by “SATCitizen” who wrote: “OK Supreme Court. . .now you better remember this ruling when it comes to CHRISTIANS’ beliefs and the violation of.”

Or, you have “freedom defender” who wrote: “The rules on beards is rediculous to say the least. But once again, these liberal judges side with the muslim. This country has gone to hell in a hand basket, to use an old term.”

It’s interesting, sometimes, to see how cognitive dissonance plays out with this sort of thing.


Background: Ken Ham runs the Answers in Genesis ministry. He and his ministry preach young-Earth creationism. They are therefore incredibly conservative, religiously. They operate the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

And that’s fine. They have a private museum, built with private funds, and they are a private entity. They can preach whatever they want. They can even require employees to have a religious affiliation and religious beliefs. Private. Simple.

Then, they decided they want to build a theme park about Noah’s Ark. And, they applied to the state of Kentucky’s tourism board to waive around $16M in taxes once it’s operational because they’ll bring in tourism money to the area. Now we get more complicated.

To get this money, they cannot enforce religion on their employees. That’s because they are now getting state rebates, therefore the state is effectively helping them, and therefore they must abide by state laws for the public money. Since the government cannot enforce a religion on someone, the entire project must abide by those rules.

AiG was told about this. They ostensibly agreed to it. Otherwise they couldn’t get the money. And we all knew that AiG wouldn’t be able to do it, and we were watching.

And, of course, AiG didn’t disappoint. There was a job posted on the AiG site for the Arc Encounter that required AiG’s standard: You had to be Christian, you had to submit a statement of faith or belief in their version of young-Earth creationism, etc. Clearly violating the rules. And, people brought it to the attention of Kentucky’s Tourism Board, as WND reported on October 9, 2014: “Noah’s Ark Theme Park Warned Over Hiring Practices.” The subtitle is, “‘We expect all of the companies that get tax incentives to obey the law.'”

The way AiG tried to skirt the rules was by saying that all people working for Ark Encounter were employees of AiG, even though Ark Encounter was not part of AiG … somehow.

And, if AiG had followed what top-commenter “The Guest” wrote, they’d’ve been fine: “Time for real Christians to say, “No thank you. God doesn’t need your help. You can take your 501c3 tax status (shackles) and throw it in the garbage where it belongs.” No one owns God, and no one can take Him and His word away from us. In the rest of the world they discriminate against Christians by prison, torture and beheadings. Here they do it by using the laws (which they make) and public pressure (discrimination).”

While I disagree with that last sentence, the overall idea is one I agree with: If you don’t want to abide by the non-religious-discrimination laws that are required when receiving any public money, then don’t take the money (tax waivers). Plain and simple. And “hmolsen” had a similar comment to “The Guest”: “What’s more important to the owners of this theme park? Their faith or their tax credits? Tell the authorities to take the tax credits and stick them where the sun won’t shine.”

I also like “Lowe Webber”‘s response to “The Guest”: “I agree on the tax statement you have made, but of course they don’t deserve it in the first place. I am certain God can fund his own projects.”

Then, in mid-December, Kentucky basically told AiG that they blew it. WND’s Bob Unruh got the easy story on December 11, 2014: “Kentucky Goes ‘ACLU’ on Noah’s Ark.” Right Wing Watch (among others) posted about this, and they headlined it as, “Ken Ham Demands Taxpayers Pay for ‘One of the Greatest Evangelist Outreaches of Our Day.'” Kinda sounds different when you put it that way, and a little less legally defensible.

I’m going to quote extensively now from the WND story:

A Christian organization building a replica of Noah’s Ark has announced possible legal action against Kentucky after state officials demanded it give up certain religious rights in order to participate in a tax-incentive program for organizations that attract tourists to the state.

Answers in Genesis, which is building the life-size version of Noah’s Ark – 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and three stories high – announced Thursday it was informed by the state that it could participate in the tourism program on two conditions.

The organization is required to “waive its right to include a religious preference in hiring” and “affirm that it will tolerate no ‘proselytizing’ at the theme park.”

Not possible, AiG responded, on billboard messages and elsewhere.

AiG said Kentucky officials bowed to pressure from secularist groups when it denied the Ark Encounter theme park an opportunity to participate in a popular tax rebate incentive program offered by the state’s tourism office.”

The restrictions demanded by the state are “unlawful,” AiG asserted.

There are several issues here to point out. Well, two. First, the law is very clear, in place because of of the First Amendment: Government must stay out of religion, therefore government money cannot be used for religion which means that if you’re getting the money, you can’t discriminate on the basis of religion. That’s in direct contradiction to the last sentence in the above quote.

Second, while I know that atheist / separation of church and state organizations brought this to Kentucky’s Tourism Board’s attention, the “pressure” (if there was any) was to enforce their own rules and the law. This wasn’t a capricious decision. AiG has to follow the rules that everyone else does.

And yet, somehow, Ken Ham is playing the victim card: “Moreover, the government cannot show hostility toward religion or discriminate against persons or organizations who express religious viewpoints.”

Then, there was this: “We have been working on this project with Kentucky for more than two years, so this just-received denial announcement is as disappointing as it is costly for our ministry without the expected rebate,” he said. “Our construction has already begun at the Williamstown, Kentucky, site, and it must proceed. We are fully prepared to defend our fundamental rights in court if necessary, as this issue is of huge importance, not only to us, but to every religious organization.”

One wonders (I do, anyway), why they need this for construction purposes? The money (tax waivers) only come after the park opens and they take money. They get to keep some of the state tax that is charged on purchases, like entry. That’s how this works. So how were they going to build it to begin with? This development doesn’t change anything. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps they had taken out loans and needed to repay them by a certain time and they won’t be able to do that without the tax waivers. Maybe.

Oh, and I should add that when the tourism board announced this, the Republican governor came out and stated that he fully supported the board’s decision.

The story has 538 comments, the most recent being posted a month ago so that’s not going to change. The next-to-last poster, “LDScowboy”, kinda echoes my sentiment: “Oh poor Ken Ham is crying religious persecution because he can’t have his millions of dollars of tax payer subsidies for his religious theme park. The man needs to grow up. Disneyland and other similar theme parks pay taxes. So should he and his ridiculous theme park.”

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately since this post is already over 1200 words, the top comments are run-of-the-mill WND. Many of them refer to an almighty god who shall not be mocked. Which raises an interesting question, now that I know that I have at least one semi-regular reader who is a proud Christian and self-described/titled Tea Partier: Isn’t demanding that the state help pay for your religious theme park mocking God in itself? Why does he need state support for his religious endeavor? Why should he get state support for his religious endeavor? How is it mocking God by rescinding tax waivers when Ham refuses to comply with the law, which (assuming he agreed originally in order to get the offer originally) means he bore false witness by lying or being misleading to originally get the money?

Edited to Add (January 21, 2015): I should’ve waited a day before posting this, apparently. The Friendly Atheist has a post that explains that Ken Ham apparently has lied about this Ark Encounter before, not just in what I wrote above, but in the projected attendance of the park. He had to do studies to show how many people they expect per year to attend in order to qualify for the tax waivers. Those numbers are in the 100s of thousands. And yet, publicly, he has stated he expects 1.6-2.0 million people per year. As Hemant points out, Ham usually has issues with shrinking numbers, but here he’s clearly inflated them.

Edited to Add (February 3, 2015): Aaaaannnndddddddd … Ken Ham is suing Kentucky to get the money. Which, again, wouldn’t have any impact on funds now, just potentially on other loans due to tax offsets after the park opens.

Edited to Add (February 6, 2015): Hemant at The Friendly Atheist blog has more on Ken Ham’s whining and trying to spin this into religious oppression.


That’s a serious question. I think I know the answer, but it’s a bit flippant, so if anyone has ideas, please let me know in the comments.

This was brought up by a post by WND’s Andrew Shea King, who wrote on January 12, 2015, “‘Pillars of Creation’ Evaporating.”

This was reporting that for th Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th anniversary, it used its latest camera to take an image of the famous “Pillars of Creation” within M16, the “Eagle Nebula.” These are so-named because they contain nascent stars that are still in the process of forming, and their high-energy ultra-violet light is blasting away the nebula that formed them. Hence the headline. They were first imaged in 1995 by the HST.

This is also one of the more strange WND posts that has a bunch of other news as part of it, so there are other topics completely unrelated to the headline. I mention this simply out of weirdness and that I haven’t used one of these types of WND posts before.

With that said, most of the 191 comments are about the headline and first story. And the highly rated ones are preaching Young-Earth Creationism or other very literal readings of the Bible.

Take, for example, “airstart” who has the hight-rated comment and wrote:

Since no one has ever witnessed the creation of a star only star destruction, (supernova) the dispersion of Eagle Nebula is not surprising. The whole universe is characterized (since the beginning) as suffering from entropy. God finished His creation activities and rested (stopped creating). After Adam’s fall God pronounced the curse on all creation. Things have been going down hill ever since, but Christ’s second coming will begin the restoration process.

There are a lot of responses and debate, partly spearheaded by “larryblk” (who wrote the one good comment about the Satanism story I posted yesterday). It also quickly devolved into an argument about evolution. Go figure. And it’s young-Earth creationism.

What is (sorta) ended with is fairly telling where “Leo” wrote, in part: “I think you are trying too hard to figure out exactly how things happened (or rather how God created things) instead of just looking at the evidence.”

In response, “larryblk” wrote, in part: “Of *course* I am. It’s called science. If your theory only works by telling people to not ask questions, then it answers nothing. Evolution explains why antelopes have four legs. Saying “because God” is no answer, unless God appears in person and explains why *exactly* He chose four. If your theory includes a conscious entity, it is a legitimate question to ask. And until you can produce that information, evolution is still the best explanation.”

This perhaps wasn’t the best example for my question, but I’m on a plane and can only view a limited number of comments that loaded before we took off. But, it shows a bit of context for my question: Why is the politically far-right often in bed with the young-Earthers?


Ever since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that became briefly (and still in homophobic circles) known as the “Gay Plague,” the US FDA has banned every homosexual man (who admits it) from donating blood. Period.

This has long been viewed as discriminatory, especially these days when HIV is not a “gay plague” but affects all groups and genders and people of all sexual orientations. It also did not make sense that you could be a hight promiscuous adult prostitute and yet still give blood while gay men who had never had sex could not. As soon as you flip that li’l gay switch, your blood is tainted. Apparently.

And so, unsurprisingly, there has been pushback. Not only from LGBT rights advocates, but by doctors. Finally, it seemed, the FDA was going to lift its ban. And WND was not happy, publishing a full (though unattributed) article on December 24, 2014, entitled, “Blood-Donor Rules Bent by ‘Politics.'”

I find it ironic that “Politics” here is in quotes because politics is the only thing that’s keeping the ban in place.

The policy change, however, has been condemned not just by the far-right, but also by the left: The policy change is such that gay men may donate blood if they have not had intercourse for one full year. Which eliminates most men.

It would eliminate most straight men, too, if that were the policy for straight persons.

Even though HIV can lay dormant for years in a human body.

So, this is a token step in the correct direction, but it’s clearly political.

Meanwhile, the WND article is quite lengthy and ranting about misleading statistics (their statistics they give to bolster their claim are misleading).

If you want to have a sound blood donation policy, you need to look dispassionately at all races, all genders, all social factors, all occupations (i.e., my example about sex workers) and determine who has the highest chances of HIV infection. Then, you look at the screening process for blood and how good it is. Then you look at the statistics for what the chances are, given the screening tests, of any given group having a donation that is both HIV-positive and is missed in screening. And then you set your bans that way.

Just banning gay men for life, or banning gay men who have had sex more recently than a year ago, is just political and unscientific.


I sometimes just open up random WND astronomy snippets to see what the comments are like. Often, they are about the heavens declare the glory of god and all that stuff. But, more often than I’d like, especially if it has anything to do with NASA, there are mini-rants against or sarcastic comments about Muslims. Go figure.

Take, for instance, this five-paragraph snippet published from the Seattle Times on WND just six days ago: “Astronomers Seek Widest View Ever of Universe.” The article was about the construction of the LSST (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) that won’t be completed for several years (it’s a big telescope). The article is all about science, all about the telescope.

And yet, the highest-rated comment is by “Nidalap” who wrote: “If they hope to get backing from NASA on this, there’d better be a Muslim outreach aspect to it………”


We all knew that the goal of at least one post per day wasn’t going to happen, but, oh well. As I wait in the airport for a flight to board, I have a follow-up post to my post summarizing three of the things Satanists were doing in 2014 to try to show that religious freedom applies to everyone.

And in this case, we get the small, 4-paragraph followup from WFTV, “Satanic Coloring Book Kills Bible Giveaway.”

For those who are too lazy to click on either link (mine or WND’s) the idea was that a public school district in Florida was having a Bible give-away, on school property, during school time. And so, if they were going to do this, so as to not violate the Establishment Clause (state-run school therefore can’t favor one religion over another), the Satanists asked if they could give away coloring books. The school had three choices: Face a lawsuit for saying no, agree, or stop all give-aways. I would prefer that last one. It looked like they were going to do the second one.

And, based on the WND headline from three days ago, they went with the third one.

Let me be clear on my position: The Bible giveaway should not have ever been permitted. That’s for church. Not for school. I think that it’s much better to NOT do this than to allow everything. Public schools should not be in the habit of promoting or appearing to promote any religion, in my opinion.

Surprisingly, “larryblk” has the top-highest-rated comment and it is: “That’s the way religious freedom works – everyone gets to participate. If you aren’t willing to let everyone participate, then you can’t have anyone participate. Courts have been very clear on this.”

Huzzah! Unfortunately, his is the only comment that’s reasonably highly rated that advocates this position. The rest are ranting about the decline of morals and “SATANISM came through by ROCK MUSIC” and various other stupidity.

Oh, and over at The Friendly Atheist, Hemant points out that Glen Beck also has a view on this (hint: he thinks it’s national suicide).