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Tabloid Science

March 15, 2011

The Sex Life of the Screwworm -- a silly subject for federally funded research, no?

Some members of Congress thought so: they singled out the project about 30 years ago as the nation’s top symbol of wasteful spending -- and later apologized when, upon further review, they realized the research was actually incredibly useful. Now, at a time when Congressional scrutiny of science spending (supposedly silly and otherwise) is rising, the other side of the debate is reviving the symbol of the screwworm to bring attention to its cause, through a method that seems too un-scientific to be true: a tabloid.

OK, so it’s a mock tabloid, but considering the authors, it might be equally funny. Using silliness to combat accusations of silliness, the Association of American Universities published its inaugural issue of "Scientific Enquirer," defending federal funding for research that may seem utterly irrelevant at first glance, but is actually productive.

The screwworms scored the cover story for the January 2011 issue. “Sex and the Screwworm,” the headline reads, “Your tax dollars go to study the sex life of a parasite, Congress wants to know why.” Directly below, slapped on like a bumper sticker and in commanding font: “Saves Country Billions!” It’s not what you’d expect to see from a prestigious group of research institutions better known for its formality (if not occasional stuffiness), but if attracting eyeballs is the goal, they just might be on to something. After all, who understands the art of getting attention better than tabloid publishers?

The AAU aims to curb misunderstanding of screwworms and other research through the broader effort of which the "Enquirer" is a part: The Societal Benefits of Research Illustrated, an online compilation of visual fact sheets that aims to make science -- and the scholarly research behind it -- accessible and understandable to members of Congress as well as the general public.

Last year, as Republican lawmakers prepared for and then carried out a political takeover of one house of Congress and dozens of state legislatures, they began the traditional process -- not unique to either party -- of publicizing odd research, often of the social sciences, to try to sway federal agencies’ funding.

The most public example from last year was YouCut, a website where viewers can vote for programs and grants that they want to see eliminated. The announcement of YouCut -- along with a few suggestions of candidates for the axe -- was uploaded about seven months ago to Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s YouTube channel and has nearly 14,000 views, 13 likes and 213 dislikes.

YouCut is a recent example of the kinds of critiques the AAU hopes to curb. “We expected with the budget pressures that we’re feeling, that we were going to see more of these attacks,” said Tobin Smith, AAU's vice president for policy. “We thought the notion of using the 'Scientific Enquirer,' kind of the tabloid approach, would catch people’s attention a little bit more than if we just wrote it down.”

In the Enquirer’s inaugural issue, published online late last month, the AAU highlights three federally funded research projects that legislators have singled out as a waste of money, explaining why they are significant and how they have contributed to society. The screwworm research, as it happens, led to the flesh-eating parasite’s eradication in the United States. Screwworms had killed millions of cattle annually; their elimination saved the country $20 billion and resulted in a 5 percent reduction in supermarket beef prices, the AAU says.

“While the titles of many scientific grants awarded by federal science agencies may sound funny, grants made by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other key agencies are generally awarded only after a rigorous and competitive peer review process,” the Enquirer reads. “If critics are able to marginalize science that seems unorthodox, or to defund research that may sound silly, how much creativity and innovation might we lose?” Among the funny topics featured in this issue: watching people make faces, and levitating frogs.

A forthcoming issue -- the second of at least three the AAU plans to publish online and possibly in print, if there’s demand -- will explain the thinking behind research on fruit flies (their nervous systems model a design solution for computer networking systems), abalone seashells (their lining is remarkably break-resistant), and soil-dwelling nematodes (they share many genes and molecular pathways with humans).

“Some of these researchers just get dragged through the mud [by critics], even though they’re doing really high-quality research,” Smith said. “I think there’s lots of examples and that’s just what we’re trying to point out with these pieces.”

For instance, Smith said that on Wednesday he received a list of 25 examples of “ridiculous government spending,” which highlighted research where scientists tested how alcohol affected the motor skills of mice. It’s “amazing” that Congress would pick on “alcoholic mice,” he said, because of course that sort of important research cannot be done on humans – so scientists use mice as model organisms.

“The real focus here is on this seemingly increasing [and longstanding] notion of picking on individual grants because they can be made to sound funny,” Smith said. The purpose of the Enquirer -- as well as the broader effort -- isn't necessarily to protect federal funding, Smith said; it’s to educate people about science and and make sure that scientific breakthroughs aren't derailed by people who misunderstand the research.

 

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