Monkey lost his job, needs $$ for crack

Does funding basic research create jobs, or just dump federal money down the drain? A joint report by Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain, entitled “Summertime Blues: 100 Stimulus Projects That Give Taxpayers the Blues” seems to imply it is often the latter. Among the “wasteful projects” they list are a study on cocaine addiction in monkeys, research into more efficient freezing of sperm, a study of Venus’ atmosphere, and the biodiversity of ants worldwide.

In an opinion piece in POLITICO, Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science calls the mockery of these “frivolous” research topics “troubling.” It is, he says, “a brilliantly effective— if misdirected — public relations formula: Seize upon individual projects—on any exotic topic, often keyed to sexuality — and label them wasteful.”

The necessity of model organisms for research is no foreign concept to the public, let alone supposedly well-informed politicians. Even in areas where human trials are ethically feasible, they are notoriously expensive, long-term, and difficult to control. Yet low-hanging headlines such as “Scientists Buy Cocaine for Monkeys,” and “$181000 for Freezing Rat Sperm” are easy bait for those seeking to oppose Obama’s stimulus plan.

Think about how difficult is it for you to plead the broader impacts of your research to NIH, NSF, or DoD, made up of a jury of your peers. How much more difficult still is it for scientists studying nematodes, flies, or yeast to explain to the average American taxpayer why their organism is best suited for a particular study and thus deserving of funding?

Although there is certainly waste inherent in every field of science, the use of clever wording to impugn the importance of models is dangerously misleading to the public. It is not immediately apparent that freezing sperm cuts waste in research, cocaine addiction is a serious problem whose neurological mechanisms are poorly understood, and that Venus’ weather may help us understand how heat is transported in an atmosphere.

“Attacking the credibility of science and the globally respected peer-review system through which it is funded is particularly damaging as the United States struggles with a 9.5 percent unemployment rate…. Federal research funding creates jobs by driving new enterprise,” Leshner goes on to say in his rebuttal. He points out that scientific research is one of the few fields that has grown during the recession, and that half of our economic growth since the last world war is due to research advances.

“Let’s hope the Coburn-McCain report doesn’t fuel … public disdain for the long-term, basic research investment that our economy so badly needs,” says Leshner. Let’s hope too that we as scientists keep in mind the importance of communicating our broader impacts, both to our funders and to our voters.

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