The Shrimp Treadmill Controversy: Why Communicating Science Matters

About 10 years ago, I ran across a hilarious article that illustrates the importance of communicating science to the general public.  It was written in response to a storm of criticism of how scientific organizations were spending the taxpayers’ money.  A particularly hot controversy was triggered by a video that has gone viral – showing a shrimp on a treadmill.

The public was outraged by the ridiculousness of the concept and was bashing the way scientists “waste” tax money on testing random, absurd ideas without any practical application.  And then came the article that sounded like an opening line for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:

My name is David, and I am the marine biologist who put a shrimp on a treadmill—a burden I will forever carry. To be clear, the treadmill did not cost millions of taxpayer dollars, the goal of the research was not to exercise shrimp, and the government did not pay me—or anyone else—to work out shrimp on treadmills.

What followed was a clever deconstruction of all of the public misconceptions.

Simply put, my colleagues and I were studying how recent changes in the oceans could potentially affect the ability of marine organisms to fight infections—an important question, given that the amount of bacteria a shrimp is able remove from its body is directly related to how much bacteria could potentially end up on seafood-filled plates. And since shrimp are active animals in nature, it was logical to study the immune response of shrimp during activity.

Exactly how much taxpayer money did go into the now-famous shrimp treadmill? The treadmill was, in fact, made from spare parts—an old truck inner tube was used for the tread, the bearings were borrowed from a skateboard, and a used pump motor was salvaged to power the treadmill. The total price for the highly publicized icon of wasteful government research spending? Less than $50. (All of which I paid for out of my own pocket.)

This incident highlights the importance of communicating and explaining science to people who are not involved in it in their daily lives.  The term “science” does not need to trigger images of a madman in a white coat standing over fuming test tubes.  In fact, fuming almost never happens (at least in the life sciences and biomedical research).  And science needs to be interesting and exciting, not only to the people who are involved with it every day, but also the members of society for which the science is done.

Daily writing prompt
What’s something most people don’t understand?

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