Nearly a million dollars for Arizona's two major universities to study ants made U.S. Sen. John McCain's top 100 list of questionable projects in the federal government's $787 billion stimulus package.
"Arizona Ants Work While Some Arizonans Remain Unemployed," reads project No. 50 on the list, released Tuesday. The spot was shared by a $450,000 University of Arizona study of the division of labor by turtle ants and a $500,000 project at Arizona State University that studies the genetic makeup of harvester ants.
In exchange for the $950,000, Arizona gets two jobs at ASU and 1.46 at the UA, according to a database of stimulus spending released at the end of October by the federal government.
The ant studies have the ignominious distinction of joining a $25,000 grant for socially conscious puppet shows, an $88,000 Georgia paving project for a street already recently repaved, and a $21,000 grant for "Bobber the Safety Dog" costumes to help kids understand the importance of wearing life vests.
"I had no idea that so much expertise concerning ants resided in the major universities of my state," McCain quipped at a news conference. "I must say, I say that with an element of pride - but I'm not sure that it is deserving of these taxpayer dollars."
McCain said Arizona is struggling with crushing unemployment and ranks second in homes "underwater." "We have serious economic problems, and we're going to spend money on ants?"
Leslie Tolbert, the UA vice president for research, said stimulus money helps keep scientists here, which will be important as the economy recovers. Tolbert added that stimulus money funds research on childhood asthma, cancer and space exploration.
While she didn't have all of the details about the grant, she predicted it will not only allow scientists to know more about an important insect, but also could help develop models for how to divvy up scarce resources.
"You don't think of it every day," she said, "but ants are really good at division of labor."
Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 573-4243 or firstname.lastname@example.org