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October 25, 2012

Robotic squirrel is investment in education, not waste

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Written by: Caitlin Johnson

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Courtesy Zachary Cava

In a not-so-apocalyptic wilderness, only one hero will come forth to save squirrel-kind. Part beast, part cyborg, the robotic squirrel aims to level the playing field against its arch nemesis, the rattlesnake. No, Hollywood hasn’t run out of ideas yet. The robotic squirrel is a collaborative ecology project between San Diego State and the University of California, Davis designed to study the relationships between these creatures in the wild.

The biorobotic squirrel is simple in design and allows researchers to control the natural defensive reactions exhibited by squirrels when facing predators. The robot’s main function is to mimic tail flagging, a technique involving rapid wagging of the tail in an attempt to fend off snakes. Because rattlesnakes rely on the element of surprise when hunting, it’s believed this display of awareness by the squirrel is key in its defense. Being able to control these encounters is important in the advancement of the study.

The project recently received harsh criticism when it made Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s tax dollar “Wastebook 2012” for this year. The “Wastebook 2012” is a list of government- funded projects Coburn considers a waste of taxpayer money. According to ABC News, the senator claims the project is an example of “taxpayer dollars spent in egregious ways.” However, Coburn failed to investigate the details of the research before sticking it with a negative label.

The project’s $325,000 fund comes from a grant provided by the National Science Foundation. In response to the criticism, SDSU Director of Media Relations and New Media Greg Block stated only a fraction of the grant was spent on building the actual robot. The rest went to four graduate students and at least 30 undergraduate students involved with the program.

SDSU biology assistant professor Rulon Clark, the principal investigator in the project, verified this statement in a recent phone interview.

He added, “Support of this research program goes toward (the students’) graduate degrees and trains the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

He emphasized such hands-on experience is crucial for developing the skill set needed to conduct similar studies in the field. “If you cut funding to basic science, you are cutting the opportunities of the student that can’t be taught in the classroom.”

There is no question such knowledge attained outside of the classroom is important.

This real world research is a necessary starting point for all students and is impossible to replicate using a textbook or lecture. Medical students spend years training through applied practices and environmental science should be no different.

If taxpayers don’t support the stepping-stones needed for the next level of innovation and engineering, students will be missing a vital part of training and experience needed to further the advancements of science. Clark went on to explain how this fundamental science is an important foundation for applied sciences. Without it, there are no raw materials for fields, such as technology development and engineering, to expand. Reseach and development begins with curiosity and a desire to explore the unknown. What appears to be a simple robot squirrel could end up paving the way for greater scientific breakthroughs in medicine, toxin treatments and robotics. The possibilities are endless as long as we continue to have the ambition—and the funding—to pursue them.

The real issue here is Coburn’s lackluster effort to examine the roots of the project. He admitted to Fox News that congress is mostly to blame for “failing in its oversight duties,” and the items on his list are merely snapshots of a much bigger problem in spending. However, he also criticized agencies who received taxpayer money for having a “lack of judgment” when it came to choosing projects to fund with the grants. The “Wastebook 2012” can be found online and lists 100 entries deemed to be useless investments. Each account is very brief, highlighting each project’s follies, but ignoring any potential benefits. The book is a whopping 200 pages (including bibliography) and one can only wonder where the funding for this project came from.

It seems spending money on clever writers and graphic designers is just fine, but supporting the future of university students is not in our nation’s financial interest.

It’s clear government spending needs to be cut back in order to begin reversing the issue of our national debt. But attacking funding for science and engineering is not the solution. Schools already have suffered major cutbacks and one robotic squirrel is not going to break the budget. Now, if we could get it to talk, we could add an awesome “RoboCop” voice that says, “Your move, creep.”

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About the Author

Caitlin Johnson
Caitlin is currently Copy Chief for The Aztec for the Spring 2014 semester. She began as an opinion writer upon transferring to San Diego State in 2012, where she is now majoring in journalism and minoring in sociology. She is a multimedia journalist interning at KPBS and will be traveling to Spain for a summer journalism internship after graduation this year.



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One Comment

  1. Amit

    A lot of money is required for research projects and I guess this is never a waste. Millions are spent on R$D which makes way for innovations.

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