Both research projects, as well as scores of others across the country, are under fire by conservatives for being funded by federal stimulus money, funds intended to boost the U.S. economy and create jobs.
Critics say the money has been lavishly extended to questionable projects, pointing to hundreds across the nation that they believe don't create jobs or invest in long-term economic growth. The issue has become a cause celebre for Republican and tea party activists heading into the November election. While campaigning for Republicans in California last week, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin called the stimulus package "the biggest boondoggle in U.S. history."
"Some of these projects may or may not have merit, but these are not stimulus projects," said U.S. Rep.
Dave Camp, R-Midland, one of the most vocal critics of the stimulus package and a candidate for re-election.
"We have not seen the job creation that we need to see in our economy: 48 out of 50 states have lost jobs since stimulus was passed."
But supporters counter that the stimulus funds have had a major impact. Out of $7.6 billion awarded, Michigan has received $3 billion for projects that have led to 70,000 jobs, according to the Michigan Economic Recovery Office.
Much of that funding was aimed at saving jobs, unemployment, protecting health care and modernizing schools.
"We know very well that the recover act has helped Michigan," said Vicki Levengood, spokeswoman for the Michigan Economic Recovery Office.
Since the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was approved last year, about $13 billion of the funds have been awarded to the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation for scientific research grants.
Facing some of the harshest scrutiny has been funding to university researchers, who counter that their work funded by the stimulus is creating jobs now, or in the future. U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
, has issued three reports since June 2009 on projects he deemed wasteful, along with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Grants criticized include $221,355 to Indiana University professors to study why young men do not like to wear condoms, $210,000 to the University of Hawaii to study how honeybees learn and $144,541 to Wake Forest University to study how monkeys act under the influence of cocaine.
Highlighted projects in Michigan include stimulus funds awarded to universities for international travel for students, including a $145,000 grant for Michigan Technological University engineering students for travel to Tanzania.
The program has a huge potential return on a small investment, said Kurt Paterson, a Michigan Tech assistant professor leading the course. During the three years of the grant, the program will take 24 graduate engineering students to the African country to integrate within their research challenges in developing communities.
"Creating better engineers yields more jobs for everybody," Paterson said. "Engineers are the catalyst for our technology in society and economy. So we know that we need to create opportunities to educate engineers in the best ways possible, and one of those ways is for engineers to understand the complexities and opportunities of work abroad."
Other grants under scrutiny were awarded to University of Michigan, where federal research spending increased 14.7 percent over the previous year, thanks to the stimulus package. Although U-M received $272 million through July for 503 projects, one that has been criticized includes a $317,000 grant to U-M researchers, who are sharing it with Princeton scientists, to measure how the media primes voters in political campaigns.
Another is a $529,648 grant to William Axinn, U-M's director of the Survey Research Center, who is studying Nepalese population processes on the environment.
U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald defended the funding, saying it will not be used for research in Nepal. "The stimulus grant was just for data analysis for data gathered on that research project in Nepal," Fitzgerald said. "But all of that data analysis will be done in Ann Arbor. The job creation part of that is that the people it puts to work doing that data analysis in Ann Arbor."
The goals of the stimulus have also been to spawn advances in health and science, which come from academic researchers, he said.
"In virtually every research proposal, there is funding that puts people to work, whether it is scientists that study or graduate students who work on projects," Fitzgerald said. "Typically they don't put hundreds of people to work like road paving projects that go on for months, but they do provide jobs for researchers and often for students, as well."
Many stimulus grants went to universities working with the private sector to understand contemporary issues, added Levengood, of the Michigan Economic Recovery Office. Stimulus money is supporting work of U-M, General Motors Co. and other companies studying better fuel efficiency for cars, while Michigan State University is working with private companies to make more efficient hybrid vehicles.
"Research money is not going to a university for some esoteric study," Levengood said. "Some of the largest grants went to public-private partnerships with universities (doing) real world research on technologies that we know will be part of Michigan's economic future."
Problem for Democrats
Even so, political analyst Steve Mitchell predicted that the stimulus package will be among several issues that will cause Democrats the most problems during the election.
"The stimulus bill was designed to create jobs and to lower unemployment, and voters here in Michigan and nationally see the unemployment picture has remained absolutely the same," said Mitchell, of Mitchell Research & Communications in East Lansing. "Voters are impatient, and they are angry that the stimulus package has not worked, and so those (politicians) who voted for it are going to face trouble at the ballot box on Nov. 2."
Glenda Brown, a Fowlerville resident who founded the 912 Liberty Tea Party of Western Livingston County, agrees.
"Everyone is livid over what they're doing, spending all this money we don't have, putting us further in debt and putting our children further in debt," Brown said. "People say, 'I can't wait for November to get here.'"