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The Fruit Fly Dilemma: Palin’s War on Science

by Melissa Crawley, Contributing Writer
October 29, 2008

It looks like Sarah Palin has a new enemy in her war on science: a fruit fly.

In Pittsburgh on Friday, Governor Palin, in trying to play the role of “super maverick earmark destroyer,” accidentally tapped into a few of my wedge issues. In a speech to a small crowd, she talked about her son, Trig, born with Down syndrome, discussing him in relation to private school vouchers and earmarks for research that she claims draw funding away from educating children with special needs.

Palin’s constant denial of scientific fact and her willingness to disregard the need for greater scientific inquiry are perhaps even scarier and even more confusing than the “VOTE!” scarf with the donkeys plastered all over it, worn at a rally last week. It’s one thing when she takes the party-line stance against embryonic stem cell research or the disregard that global warming really exists. It’s another thing when she makes the outrageous claim that funding research – particularly on fruit flies – draws money away from special needs education, an issue in which she actually has a direct stake.

For the unfamiliar, Drosophila melanogaster, more commonly known as the fruit fly, are commonly used as a tool to study genetics. They are an ideal tool for such research because they are easily cultured, reproduce prodigiously, have readily available mutants for study, and because much is known about their genome. We use them to study gene transmission patterns and disease processes, and last year, to build a link between a specific protein and autism. This protein, neurexin, is needed to create functioning neural connections; when defective in humans, it can be a genetic risk factor for autism.

This is a clear-cut example in which Palin’s anti-science rhetoric counteracts the causes she claims to fight for. It also emphasizes further her resistance toward policies that will provide solutions to problems that afflict Americans. We fund research in this country by grants. The process is slow, time-consuming, and often frustrating, but it also is often the only way to obtain funding without being forced to seek aid from the private sector.

Cutting earmark funding of research would be disastrous to the forces of scientific innovation and could prove devastating to an economy that desperately needs to locate “the next big industry.” How do we find the best solution for alternative fuel if the only scientists who can afford to do the research work for Exxon-Mobile and BP? In the mean time, who is going to work out better, cleaner ways of extracting materials that we need to use while we roll out green technology? Who will make sure that medical research is creating new solutions to problems we can’t answer yet? Who will make sure that scientists can perform research that, while not ultimately profitable, will benefit society more than another new pill that can provide relief against erectile dysfunction? Earmarks in research provide a way to ensure that funding is provided to study very specific questions that might otherwise not be addressed.

Just for fun, I downloaded the “Big Kahuna” list of 2008 Congressional earmarks. I read the whole thing – less fun. I won’t deny that some of our money is being used for some pretty strange and perhaps inappropriate things. More than a few items, though, have goals oriented at treating chronic conditions and serious problems. For example, finding ways to measure blood glucose without a needle stick could lead to greater compliance in millions of patients with poorly-controlled diabetes, which could save billions of dollars in health care costs. Aquaculture research helps us better understand how to achieve sustainable, safe seafood supplies. Plenty of the earmarks that Palin rallies so hard against – dear Drosophila notwithstanding – provide funding for projects that aim to help the disabled through the funding of educational initiatives and building renovations.

I won’t pretend to think that the system is perfect where it stands now. But I don’t think that the solution is as simple as Governor Palin would like for it to be, and I don’t think that science is the enemy in budget earmarks, when there are still so many Bridges to Nowhere that account for much greater percentages of earmark spending. And while I agree fundamentally with Palin that more needs to be done to ensure the well-being of disabled Americans, her anti-science sensibilities prevent her from understanding that funding science can be a tool to carry us forward, by allowing scientists to seek innovative answers to the problems we face.

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