Some of the strangest projects funded by taxpayer dollars

Written by:
November 16, 2018
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Some of the strangest projects funded by taxpayer dollars

Some politicians aren't big fans of spending taxpayer dollars on artistic endeavors like dog theater or digitizing puppets. However, the arts aren't the only federal programs that support peculiar projects. The government has also spent money trying to study psychic ability and train cats for military purposes. Some view this spending as wasteful, but others think the pursuit of art and knowledge, however strange, is worth the money. While some projects may look silly—like shrimp on a treadmill—scientists and artists have their reasons.

Conservative politicians have a history of wanting to limit or get rid of projects supported by federal funding, especially for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In 2018, President Donald Trump's budget sought to eliminate funding to federal culture programs. However, Congress approved more spending for the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.

While taxpayer dollars go toward local and state projects, the federal government funds science research—though less than it used to, artistic projects, and other innovative programs through National Institute of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), NEA, NEH, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Using data from federally funded organizations, along with news reports on government spending, Stacker compiled a list of the 50 strangest projects funded by taxpayer dollars. Whether they're deemed inappropriate or innovative, they're definitely interesting. Click through to see which projects made the list.

ALSO: States where people receive the biggest tax refunds

Acoustic Kitty

In the 1960s, the CIA tried to train cats to become spies … sort of. They surgically implanted microphones and radio transmitters in the felines with hopes these “surveillance cats” could saunter past security to listen in on the activity at the Soviet Embassy. The agency reportedly spent about $10 million on the failed project.

Super soldiers

In 2013, the U.S. Special Operations Command partnered with DARPA to create a super-soldier suit called Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS). The Defense Sciences Office—created in 1999 by DARPA—also hired a biotechnology firm to try to create a pain vaccine so soldiers could keep fighting if they got hurt during battle (as long as the bleeding stopped).

Anti-sleep research

DARPA has also worked over the years to eliminate the need for sleep. If soldiers could stay awake for long periods of time, that would put the enemy at a tactical disadvantage when they became too tired to keep fighting.

Military psychics

The plot behind “Men Who Stare at Goats,” was based on the military’s interest in using psychokinesis. The Army reported that harnessing psychic power might help win the Cold War. The Air Force even tried to test for extrasensory perception (ESP).

Cactus theater

In a move criticized by Conservatives, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) gave a $10,000 grant in 2016 to Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona, for a cactus theater. Attendees could commune with a saguaro cactus for an hour in the middle of the desert.

Doggie Hamlet

A performance of “Doggie Hamlet” in 2015 received $45,000 from the New England Foundation for the Arts and Creative Capital’s Map Fund, the former of which was established with funding from the NEA. Some criticized using taxpayer money to fund the project, while The New York Times claimed it was a production worth funding for those who value the arts.

Project MKUltra

During the Cold War, the CIA approved MKUltra. The project—which actually consisted of 162 secret projects—tested the biological and mind-altering effects of drugs like LSD and alcohol on human behavior. Some tests were performed without the permission of its subjects, including prisoners, sex workers, and terminal cancer patients.

Drug-addicted animals

Animal testing is often done before human trials are safe. But some studies seem stranger—and less humane—than others. With funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Caltech researchers were given more than $8 million to dose rats with nicotine and then burn them to see if the drug had an effect on pain.

Honey bees on cocaine

With funding from the NIH, researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, released a 2018 report that honey bees dance more—a move that signals food location—when they’re given cocaine. The study shows that, like humans, insects can be motivated by feelings of reward. While some might criticize the study as a waste of taxpayer money, the researchers said it sheds light on the altruistic and social behavior of animals.


Puppet preservation

In 2007, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) gave $5,000 for conservation efforts for the Center for Puppetry Arts’ Puppet Collection. The money helped assess the quality of the puppets, which were used in cultures from around the world.

History of Tupperware

During a three-year period starting in 2001, the NEH gave $450,000 to create a documentary about Tupperware. The film explores the “history of post-war marketing, industrial innovation, positive thinking, and housewifely entrepreneurship,” along with a look at the company’s founders.

Superheroes and American culture

In 2010, the NY Center for Urban Folk Culture received $800,000 from the NEH to create a public documentary series about comic book heroes “as reflections of American cultural values from 1938 to the present.” The series explored how superheroes expanded from print to the big screen.


Frankenstein readings

Indiana Humanities received $300,000 from the NEH for “A Frankenstein Community Read,” programs launched in 2018 that take the themes of Frankenstein and explore how they relate to the role of science and technology in people’s lives. Funding goes toward speakers, film festivals, a nationally distributed ethics podcast, and campus read grants for 11 Indiana colleges and universities.

Robotic squirrels and rattlesnakes

The National Science Foundation (NSF) helped support research into the behavior of rattlesnakes and their prey by giving $325,000 to San Diego University. The unconventional scientific, four-year study begun in 2011 used a robotic squirrel to interact with the reptiles.  

Mars menu

When humans set out for Mars, they’ll need something to eat. Scientists from Cornell University and the University of Hawaii received a $947,000 grant from NASA to conduct a 2018 study to see if astronauts could cook their food—instead of eating pre-packaged meals—while traveling to Mars. A lengthy mission puts space travelers at risk for “menu fatigue,” which could have adverse health effects if astronauts get too bored to eat.

Cocaine and quails

The NIH awarded researchers at the University of Kentucky almost $357,000, starting in 2010, to investigate the risky sexual habits of quails on cocaine. Quail mating is somewhat similar to human mating because they are visually oriented. This makes them a better choice to study than rats, which are triggered through smell. While the study may seem silly, studying the behavior of drugs in animals can help scientists better understand the biological mechanics of addiction.

Hamster fight club

Over the course of 20 years, researchers at Northeastern University in Boston received about $3 million from NIH to study aggression-promoting drugs like steroids by injecting them in animals like hamsters. The government stopped funding the program in 2017 after complaints by PETA.

Sleep loss in Mexican cavefish

Every animal sleeps, but this nightly habit is still poorly understood. In 2017, the NSF awarded Florida Atlantic University $333,000 to study what happens when Mexican cavefish don’t get enough shuteye. The research will continue through 2020.


Microbiota of tombstones

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder received funding from the NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences to find out what microbes grow on rock surfaces. The scientists chose to study tombstones because they are only made out of certain types of rocks and are found throughout the world. Their findings were published in December 2017.

Tracking the female gaze in spiders

The NSF awarded $580,896 in 2017 to researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Cincinnati to track eye movements and mating habits in female jumping spiders. Since spiders have small brains, the researchers hope to glean insight into how these arachnids utilize data in their visual field effectively.

Paying hipsters to stop smoking

The NIH spent about $5 million to pay “hipsters” $100 each since 2011 to give up cigarettes in the hopes that this would influence others to quit smoking. A researcher from the University of California, San Diego—who was a contestant on “The Real World” when she was in medical school—led the successful anti-smoking effort. The study “found a significant decrease in smoking within a young adult bar-going community where a targeted intervention was enacted” and “that the intervention is a feasible and promising strategy to decrease tobacco use in young adults.”

Mice in space

In mid-2018, a NASA-funded project led by researchers from Northwestern University in Chicago launched 20 mice to the International Space Station. The program, officially dubbed Rodent Research-7, will examine how the near gravity-free environment of space affects the circadian rhythm, microbiota, and other physiological symptoms of mice. Scientists hope to use the results to find better protection for astronauts’ health during long space missions, like when they head to Mars.


Ancient genes

In a stranger than fiction study published October 2018, scientists at New York University and the University of Chicago created fruit flies with ancient reconstructed DNA to see how ancient mutations drove major evolutionary changes in the development of embryos. The NSF and NIH supported the research.

Project Iceworm

In the late 1950s, the U.S. Army launched Project Iceworm, which planned to hide hundreds of ballistic missiles under Greenland’s ice caps that could strike the Soviet mainland. The military ultimately had to scrap the plan in 1967.

Pigeon-guided missiles

In 1943, psychologist and inventor B.F. Skinner received $25,000 (about $373,430 in today’s dollars) from the National Research Defense Committee to train pigeons to guide missiles. Though Skinner demonstrated he could train pigeons, the military abandoned the project.  


In the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force launched Project 1794. The plan was to build a disc-shaped vehicle that could shoot down Soviet planes while traveling at supersonic speeds up to an altitude of 100,000 feet. The project’s estimated cost was more than $3 million, which would equal $26 million today.  

Patterns in jazz

In 2017, a team from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Columbia University, along with international researchers, received a $199,982 grant from the NEH to study jazz. This project’s purpose is to create new technological and music-analytical methods that will help musicologists and computer scientists gain a better understanding of the social and cultural context of jazz.


Rural resettlement

The Kansas Department of Commerce is looking for new residents in their least populated counties, known as Rural Opportunity Zones. Those who move to Kansas from out of state can get up to $15,000 of their student debt paid off over five years from participating schools. They will also be exempt from state income tax for up to five years.

Hack the Pentagon

In an effort to increase their cybersecurity, the Department of Defense paid private-sector firms to “Hack the Pentagon” and expose the agency’s own vulnerabilities. Having outside groups identify risks helps the DOD strengthen their internal security. They launched the program in 2016 and expanded it this year.

Teaching intuition to soldiers

In 2014, the Office of Naval Research brought in experts in neural, cognitive, and behavioral science to combine their findings on intuition and translate them into applications that might be helpful for military personnel and first responders. The point of the research was to help sailors and Marines use their “gut instincts” when they need to act quickly.

Glow-in-the-dark mice

In 2002, the NIH helped fund research at Caltech to create phosphorescent mice by injecting mouse embryos with a virus containing a jellyfish gene for green fluorescence. Since then, researchers have since created other glow-in-the-dark creatures like fish and cats.

Silk-spinning goats

In 2012, researchers at the University of Wyoming received federal funding to genetically engineer goats that could produce a protein found in spider silk in their milk. Silk is a strong substance that has medical uses for humans.

Climate change musical

The NSF in 2010 gave $697,177 to a theater company in Brooklyn, New York, to develop a musical about climate change as a creative way to expose the public to science. While a musical might seem like a strange way to teach science, the project aimed to educate viewers about the scientific method by using an innovative technique.

Comet Hitchhiker

One of the 2014 winners of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program was a project called Comet Hitchhiker. The project received $100,000 to explore the concept—developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California—that would help a spacecraft orbit and land on comets and asteroids using the kinetic energy of the space bodies.

Space squid

NASA is funding a robotic squid-like rover that can scavenge with electrodynamic power. The hope is that it will be able to explore surfaces like those on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Researchers at Cornell University created the concept, which is part of the new NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program that “aims to turn science fiction into science fact.”

Militarized bees

In mid-2000, the Department of Defense invested $2 million to launch the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project to see if honey bees could be trained to detect bombs. The Army ultimately nixed the project as the bees were too unreliable.

Giant space gun

In 1961, the government built a giant gun aimed at space. Project HARP (High Altitude Research Project) was designed to see if ballistics could launch things out of the atmosphere. The project was abandoned in 1967 to shift priorities toward the Vietnam War, but the gun barrel is still sitting in Barbados.

Space net

Another one of the 2014 winners of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program was a giant space net, otherwise known as WRANGLER (Weightless Rendezvous And Net Grapple to Limit Excess Rotation). The project received $100,000, and the technology is designed to capture asteroids and debris, and spin them back out into space.

How to blow bubbles

The NSF helped fund a project at NYU’s Applied Math Lab to discover how to blow bubbles. The 2018 results have potential applications in consumer products that contain bubbles or droplets, including sprays or foams that contain unmixable liquids.

Guppy attraction

The NSF helped fund a project at the University of College London and Stockholm University that showed in 2018 that female guppies with smaller brains know which males are attractive. However, the female guppies don’t necessarily find attractive males more appealing, and they don’t choose to mate with them. The study helps researchers better understand how mating patterns evolve.

Personality tests

In research that might be beneficial to hiring managers and mental health care providers, the NSF helped fund a study out of Northwestern University in Chicago that in 2018 identified four distinct clusters of personality types—average, reserved, self-centered, and role model. The results challenge existing paradigms in psychology.

Ants as social creatures

Researchers at Princeton University used an NSF grant—along with other funding—to gain a better understanding of the beneficial effect of working in a group. So they looked to ants. The scientists reported in 2018 that ant groups with as few as six individuals had better survival outcomes and faster-growing babies.

Project Artichoke

Starting in 1949, the CIA started conducting drug-testing and behavior research under a program called Project Bluebird, later known as Project Artichoke. The top-secret program investigated hypnosis, brainwashing, and other mind-control techniques.

The "Monster Study"

In 1939, a professor at the University of Iowa—a public school—experimented on orphans to see if stuttering in children could be created by psychological distress, creating an environment where young subjects were repeatedly badgered and harrassed. In 2006, the State of Iowa agreed to pay $925,000 to the remaining study’s participants, some who said they suffered lifelong psychological damage. Over time, the experiment came to be known as "The Monster Study" due to its lasting negative impacts on its subjects.

Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1971, the U.S. Office of Naval Research funded the Stanford Prison Experiment to study antisocial behavior. College students were either assigned the role of guard or prisoner. The project, which was supposed to last two weeks, was halted on the sixth day for ethical reasons.

Social media and rumors during weather disasters

People turn to social media to get information during weather disasters. After hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the NSF gave a $175, 735 grant to the University at Buffalo to fund research on how people use social media to communicate before and during a disaster. The research showed that after both hurricanes, false information—like the idea that immigration status would be checked at evacuation shelters—was more likely to spread through social media, a fact that could hurt those trying to seek help.

Swimming sea shrimp

In a study that some criticized as wasteful spending on the part of the taxpayer, the NIH funded a project at Stanford University that explored the effects of vertical marine migration. The study, released in 2018, studied brine shrimp in an ocean-like (read: lab) environment. Understanding how marine life keeps the ocean healthy can help scientists on their quest to better understand the effects of climate change.   

Massage for rabbits

Ohio State University received $387,000 from the NIH for a 2013 study on the effects of massage on rabbits. While some criticized using tax dollars on the study, researchers determined that Swedish massage did reduce swelling and muscle damage in the rabbits, showing the healing benefits of the technique.


Shrimp on a treadmill

In 2011, a study that used a treadmill to study shrimp was criticized as wasteful spending. While a treadmill was used to test how shrimp react to changes in water quality, they used a minuscule amount of the $500,000 federal grant.

Cat bites and depression

In 2012, the NIH and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences gave $10,083,023 in funding to help researchers at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor figure out the link between cat bites and depression in their owners. Though the results aren’t causal, the study found that female patients with cat bites had a 50% chance of being diagnosed with depression. Men have a 25% risk.


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