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Defending the Fruit Flies from Sarah Palin

October 28, 2008

Throughout his presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain has had a few choice earmarks to cite when he blasts the Congressional practice of setting aside funds for particular projects. One of his favorite targets is a study of bear DNA.

In a speech Friday, Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, tried to highlight another earmark -- and some supporters of science say that the campaign has gone too far. In a speech in which she proposed a major expansion of federal assistance for students with special education needs, Palin said that money could be found by cutting earmarks. Her example: "Sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not!"

Obviously if Congress is paying to study the fruit fly, or for researchers to travel to Paris or -- horreurs -- paying U.S. tax dollars to French scientists, something terribly wasteful must be going on. At least that was the message. But to some observers of science, the McCain-Palin campaign against earmarks has veered into a campaign against science.

Take the fruit fly research in Paris. Many scientists abhor earmarks, believing that peer review is the best way to give out funds. But the fruit fly research appears to be a classic example of how the title for a research project -- without any context -- can be made to sound silly. While the McCain campaign wouldn't confirm this, Palin's remark appears to be a reference to an earmark obtained by Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, to support olive fruit fly research. The group Citizens Against Government Waste honored Thompson with "The French Kiss Off Award" for the earmark, noting that the work would be done in Paris.

A spokeswoman for Representative Thompson said that the earmark wasn't some junket or silly project. Olive trees represent a growing agricultural enterprise in California, she said, and the olive fruit fly is the greatest danger posed to them. The problem has been widespread in Europe for years, but is just starting to appear in the United States. The spokeswoman said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a field station in France for just such situations -- to study agriculture problems there that are becoming (or may become) problems in the United States. That's where the money is going. "This money is going to American scientists who are working to help Americans," she said.

Beyond the matter of this one earmark, there is the broader question of how science is being described -- as a series of federal giveaways, without providing any relevant context. For example, Scientific American explored Senator McCain's beloved bear DNA research and found that it is a study largely required to comply with federal regulations about tracking endangered species.

As for fruit flies, a series of articles published Monday served as a reminder for non-scientists that the size of an animal studied does not correlate with the significance of the work being done. A molecular biologist took to Daily Kos to describe the role of fruit flies in science that has led to the Nobel Prize, cancer breakthroughs and various scientific advances.

Slate noted the irony of Palin mocking fruit fly research in a speech about special needs children -- when some research about autism makes use of research on fruit flies. And Pharyngula -- a blog not known for restraint in criticizing politicians who question science -- said this: "This idiot woman, this blind, shortsighted ignoramus, this pretentious clod, mocks basic research and the international research community. You damn well better believe that there is research going on in animal models -- what does she expect, that scientists should mutagenize human mothers and chop up baby brains for this work?"

The McCain-Palin campaign did not respond to calls seeking comment on these articles or Friday's speech.

 

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