WASHINGTON — They called it the Red Balloon Challenge. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, responsible for investing in next-generation technologies, recently paid researchers at MIT $40,000 to coordinate a social-media treasure hunt for 10 red balloons placed at various locations across the country. They succeeded, in eight hours, 52 minutes, and 41 seconds.
At Brown University, researchers received nearly $300,000 from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to determine the color of the wings of the Archaeopteryx, a bird that lived 150 million years ago. They concluded “black, with 95 percent probability.”
Then there is the beef jerky rollup being cooked up for the troops by the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, where “a variety of flavors are being developed, including salami, chipotle, turkey, pork, and smoked ham.” They are also working with a food processing company on a fish-flavored one, but as one of the developers put it, “the recipe needs to be tweaked to make it less fishy.”
Fishy is right, according to “Department of Everything,” a wry but scathing new report commissioned by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma that identified $67.9 billion in the defense budget during the next decade designated for projects that have little to do with defending the nation. That waste includes conducting nonmilitary research, running schools, grocery stores, and microbreweries, and maintaining unnecessary overhead and supplies.
Several of the cited projects were funded in New England. Efforts to reach the MIT researchers and the Natick center were unsuccessful.
“I prepared this report because the American people expect the Pentagon’s $600 billion annual budget to go toward our nation’s defense,” said Coburn, the ranking Republican of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and a noted budget hawk. “That isn’t happening. Billions of defense dollars are being spent on programs and missions that have little or nothing to do with national security, or are already being performed by other government agencies.”
He added: “Spending more on grocery stores than guns doesn’t make any sense. And using defense dollars to run microbreweries, study Twitter slang, create beef jerky, or examine ‘Star Trek’ does nothing to defend our nation.”
His report says, the same agency that paid MIT to find balloons paid some $100,000 for a workshop that included “an interesting discussion involving the Klingons, a fictional alien species who were villains and then later allies of humanity in the ‘Star Trek’ series.”
One of the sessions, titled “Did Jesus die for Klingons, too?,” featured a philosophy professor “who pondered the theological conflict to Christianity if intelligent life was found on other planets.”
The 73-page scrub of Pentagon spending is a remarkably savory read for a government report. Yet as Congress debates ways to rein in federal spending, Coburn insisted it is no laughing matter and expressed hope it will be taken seriously.