Pig-Pong: Feds funded experiment to teach hogs to play video game


Sen. Joni Ernst released a list of dubious government spending Tuesday, questioning why federal taxpayers had to foot the bill for studies that trained pigs to play a video game or dolphins to use an underwater touchpad to try to tap out their thoughts.

Ms. Ernst, Iowa Republican, said it’s time the public gets accountability for those kinds of projects.

She announced legislation to require every researcher relying on federal funding to reveal taxpayers’ role in supporting the project when they publish their work or findings.

“How can we eliminate what we can’t even see?” Ms. Ernst said in a statement announcing the legislation. She chided the government over the dolphin touchpad and the pig video game, which she dubbed “Swinecraft” after the popular game Minecraft.

She also dinged the National Endowment for the Humanities for a $400,000 grant to the National Comedy Center so it could display documents from comics Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Ms. Ernst blasted the Agriculture Department for providing $650,000 to a company that insisted it could come up with cheaper ways to grow mealworms on a large scale. All Things Bugs LLC said it is “revolutionizing the food industry” by promoting insects as the next big thing in sustainable protein.

“Unexplainable expenditures like these really bug taxpayers, yet they keep popping up because no one really knows where the trillions of dollars being doled out every year by Washington are actually going. And that is entirely intentional,” she said.

She is focusing on questionable spending as budget debates heat up in Washington. President Biden’s proposal for fiscal year 2024 calls for spending a record $6.9 trillion while collecting a record $5 trillion in taxes.

The budget is largely symbolic, and Republicans are pondering whether to craft their own version or instead focus on the actual spending bills, due by Sept. 30, that fund the government’s programs.

Ms. Ernst said it’s time to tame the government’s generous research budget.

She said Congress has been criticizing big spenders for years, but it never seems to produce results. A law from a decade ago requiring the government to compile a list of every program it runs isn’t being followed.

Another law requiring a name-and-shame list for every infrastructure project that is behind schedule or $1 billion over budget is, ironically, “behind schedule and still not completed,” the senator said.

In the pig experiment, funded in part by the Agriculture Department, hogs were taught to push a joystick with their snout to move a cursor on the screen. The four “micro pigs,” as the Purdue University researchers dubbed them, performed significantly better than random chance, suggesting they were cognizant of what they were doing.

Candace Croney, director of Purdue’s Center for Animal Welfare Science, did the research years ago but updated it in 2021.

“While our pigs were nowhere near as competent as monkeys and chimpanzees, what’s really cool is that they could do the task to any degree,” Ms. Croney said in a Purdue press release detailing her work. “And that they were actually able to overcome the major conceptual hurdle of understanding that their manipulation of the joystick was having an effect elsewhere, and that controlling that effect is what elicited a reward is the thing that I find really remarkable.”

The National Science Foundation, meanwhile, ponied up federal cash for the dolphin experiment.

Researchers built an 8-foot iPad-like system for underwater and then prodded dolphins to interact with it. The researchers were trying to gauge dolphins’ capacity for communication.

They said one younger dolphin showed particular aptitude with a whack-a-mole type game in which he tracked moving fish on the screen.

“It has always been hard to keep up with dolphins, they are so smart; a fully interactive and programmable system will help us follow them in any direction they take us,” Marcelo Magnasco said in a press release announcing the effort at Rockefeller University in New York.

The programs are the latest in a long line of ignominious spending dating back to the “shrimp on a treadmill” project, exposed by Sen. Tom Coburn. That one was an early viral sensation because of a video showing the shrimp trying to keep up the pace as the belt turns underneath.

To opponents, it was the epitome of waste.

Researchers insisted it was an attempt to stress-test the Pacific white shrimp to see how it would respond to increasing bacteria in its environment as a result of global warming.

After shrimp-on-a-treadmill became a target for late-night comics, budget hawks realized the animal spending programs were easy prey.

It quickly became clear that federally funded researchers would put just about anything on a treadmill: turkeys, turtles, a mountain lion and even the mudskipper fish. Waste-watchers also questioned research that trained monkeys to gamble using a computer program, a study probing recovery time in rabbits by offering them massages, and a scientist who had himself stung all over by a honeybee to conclude that being stung on the nose and upper lip was more painful than being stung on the penis.

Justin Goodman, senior vice president for advocacy and public policy at the White Coat Waste Project, said it’s time to give the animal acts a rest, and he called Ms. Ernst a “waste warrior” for highlighting some of the latest projects.

“We already know that dolphins and pigs are smart. The white coats wasting taxpayer dollars to teach animals to play video games are the ones who need intelligence tests,” he said.

He said the National Science Foundation, the Agriculture Department and the National Institutes of Health “waste over $20 billion a year on outdated, inefficient, and cruel animal experiments at home and abroad, including at dozens of shady animal labs in Russia and China.”

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