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University Defends its $325K ‘RoboSquirrel’ Study

San Diego State University’s $325,000 robotic squirrel study made headlines recently, billed as a big waste of taxpayer money, but campus officials told The Daily Aztec their effort wasn’t nuts.

By the way, for those who missed it, RoboSquirrel is “a taxidermied actual squirrel that is stored with live squirrels so it smells real. The body and tail are heated with copper wiring, so the snake can see the squirrel’s heat signature,” according to Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s “Wastebook 2012.”

The project’s $325,000 checkbook came by way of a grant provided to SDSU and UC Davis by the National Science Foundation. SDSU’s spokesman Greg Block defended the funding, telling The Daily Aztec “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.” (Hhhmm, probably a lot of federally funded late-night pizza runs on this one.)

SDSU biology assistant professor Rulon Clark, the principal investigator in the project, told The Daily Aztec that “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.’ ”

Coburn’s report saw things quite differently, however.

“While the interaction between squirrels and rattlesnakes has been understood from observations in the wild, the researchers suggest federal funding of projects like the robot squirrel will help perform public outreach, mentor students, and develop the next generation of robot animals.131 In fact, the team is already constructing other robot mammals. Coming soon are RoboSquirrel 2.0 as well as RoboKangarooRat.  During these difficult fiscal times of massive deficits, paying $325,000 for a robot squirrel seems a bit squirrelly.”

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