“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”
Some of my special interests are insects, science and special education. The three subjects rarely intersect, but you can bet that when they do, it’s going to be interesting! Populist politics is once again — or rather — still degenerating into vast bogs of anti-intellectualism. As noted across many news-editorial and science blogs, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin positively excels at scorning science. It shows up not only in her stump speeches, but also in her belief in young-earth creationism and stance on teaching Intelligent Design in classrooms. One of the latest foofaraws is her denunciation of funding for research on fruit flies.
“You’ve heard about some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good,” Palin said. “Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” [YouTube link]
What does Palin have against this line of science? Well, that’s a bit puzzling, especially when we look at the subject of her first policy speech. The VP candidate was talking about special education services and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). But all the pro-funding talk was a bit of a turn-around for the Alaskan governor, who had previously cut the funding for Special Olympics in half.
What really stood out is that within her speechifying, the intent of her points about science funding collided with the actual content of part of what she was saying. Palin was (among other things) advocating for more research into the causes of various learning difficulties.
“Early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference. That’s why we’re going to strengthen NIH. We’re going to work on long-term cures, and in the short-term, we’re going to work on giving these families better information.”
She’s been referred to by her running mate as knowing more about autism than anyone else than McCain knows, because she has an autistic nephew. Palin’s baby, Trig, has Down’s, and (unless any of her other children have undisclosed difficulties) she has not even begun to personally wade through the bureaucracy of IEPs or Special Education. She may be a good cheerleader and figurehead for the voters who choose candidates that have a few personal details in common. But neither these biographical details nor her BA in journalism make her well-versed on the heritability factors of various developmental delays, nor the education of students with specific learning difficulties. For all of the gushing god-talk and the flippant folksy phrases filling her delivery, she doesn’t really display a sense of the basic science of what she’s chattering about.
Aside from the inherent difficulty in “curing” genetic disorders (including autism), we have to wonder just how she expects these cures to be developed when on one hand she says we need more work, but on the other hand she turns right around and scorns spending money on science research.
The repudiation in the newspaper editorials and letters, and in the blogosphere was swift in the many detailed defenses of basic research, including using Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism for research in genetics, evolution and biochemistry. This insect has even been used to help elucidate possible neurological issues in autism. Associate professor of biology from the University of Minnesota Morris, P.Z. Myers, who blogs as Pharyngula, responded:
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? — and countries like France and Germany and England and Canada and China and India and others are all respected participants in these efforts.
Yes, scientists work on fruit flies. Some of the most powerful tools in genetics and molecular biology are available in fruit flies, and these are animals that are particularly amenable to experimentation. Molecular genetics has revealed that humans share key molecules, the basic developmental toolkit, with all other animals, thanks to our shared evolutionary heritage (something else the wackaloon from Wasilla denies), and that we can use these other organisms to probe the fundamental mechanisms that underlie core processes in the formation of the nervous system — precisely the phenomena Palin claims are so important.
But what many people did not realise is that the project Palin (or her script-writers) so dumbly dissed was not about that diminutive Diptera at all. In fact, the Drosophila melanogaster, is not a true fruit fly; it is in the family Drosophilidae. The fly of likely interest was the olive fruit fly Bactrocera oleae, in the family Tephritidae, which are the True Fruit Flies. To be fair, only entomologists pay attention to the family-level distinctions, and it’s one of those annoying and sometimes confusing historical accidents of nomenclature that we call Drosophila the Common Fruit Fly. (And this, O Best Beloved, is why the world uses scientific names, to prevent the massive confusion that can result from the same organism having up to hundreds of common names, and the same common name being used for completely unrelated species. We don’t employ binomial nomenclature to sound snooty, despite what some people assert.)
Aside from the confusion over types of flies, is this research in France just another pork-barrel project, some useless study that sucks money away from more important things? After all, Palin may not be very familiar with agricultural issues because the arctic circle state is not a major farming state.
Well, the olive fruit fly is an exotic insect has no natural enemies in California, where olives are now being grown domestically as a commercial crop. Worse, the damage inflicted can result in a loss of 80-100% of the year’s production. So why would the Alaskan governor even refer to work on a California crop pest? It’s quite possible that the ear-marked research was cited because of a recent report by the Citizens Against Government Waste. Although there certainly are a number of earmarks for construction, cultural, scientific or educational projects that can be questioned for being of dubious value, the scientific ones are prone to misinterpretation simply because the general public usually does not understand the value of basic or applied research. Unlike something more concrete like bridges, the research often takes more context and background information to make sensible evaluations of the usefulness or appropriateness of the monies awarded. In response to the CAGW’s “French Kiss Off Award”, Representative Mike Thompson had a prepared statement about the research:
“The Olive Fruit Fly has infested thousands of California olive groves and is the single largest threat to the U.S. olive and olive oil industries,” he said. “I secured $748,000 for olive fruit fly research and irradiation in the (fiscal year 2008) appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA will use some of that funding for their research facility in France. This USDA research facility is located in France because Mediterranean countries like France have dealt with the Olive Fruit Fly for decades, while California has only been exposed since the late 1990s. This is not uncommon; the USDA has several international research facilities throughout the world, including Australia, China and Argentina.”
Cultural and biological controls are highly important for the successful production of crops. One of the most famous success stories of using biological controls was from California, where the Vedallia ladybeetle was imported to attack the cottony cushion scale populations that threatened to wipe out the newly-established citrus industry in the late 1800’s. There are a lot of parallels here — a newly-established agricultural industry cannot become a major industry to help provide income to a state’s economy if the crop is severely threatened by a pest. This isn’t nonsense — this is applied research, with straightforward benefits.
Of course, there’s the whole issue of her saying, “Paris, France”. Doubtless this (rather provincial and somewhat xenophobic) usage was meant to elicit all sorts of responses in the audience. What response in particular is open to interpretations, such as: (1) It was in Paris, France, as opposed to Paris, Texas. (2) We’re sending money abroad instead of keeping it in the U.S. of A! (3) The money’s going to those socialist Europeans! But actually, the USDA research facility isn’t even in Paris. It’s near Montpellier. The research done there by Americans is for Americans, not only on the olive fruit fly but other devastating agricultural pests. (Well, primary for Americans; research ultimately benefits everyone.) But where better to study the ecology and best biological controls for an exotic pest than from where it originates? After all, this is what we have done for a number of other introduced, exotic crop pests. Why? Because unlike chemical controls, biological and cultural controls don’t fail due to the evolution of pesticide-resistant populations. Yes, it’s true — species do evolve! Drug-resistant bacteria evolve. Insecticide-resistant insects evolve.
I just don’t understand how she expects these advances to be made in understanding the pathogenesis or treatment of various learning disorders when she also turns around and is so contemptuous of science in general, whether agricultural or evolutionary.
But who cares about factual details when trying to rouse crowds? It’s always easier to ridicule biologists because you don’t understand what they’re doing or why it’s important. It’s much simpler to make cheap shots at funding entomologists who work to sustain agricultural industries. (Heaven forbid we should have a more virulent pest that decimates the potato crops for our “Freedom Fries”.) Hey Palin — make like a banana and split.