You’re not supposed to kick a guy when he’s down.
Of course, in reality, when he’s down is the perfect time to kick him. He’s closer to your feet, for one thing. But the particular kicking I have in mind should be thought of as tough love. These kicks at the freshly defeated McCain-Palin ticket, as I write in early November, are an attempt to knock some sense back into the group of my fellow Americans who seem determined to ignore or even denigrate valuable scientific research because it’s something outside the realm of Joe the Plumber’s daily activities.
So let’s review. During the presidential campaign, Senator John McCain repeatedly attacked a specific bit of federal funding to study bear DNA. “You know, we spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don’t know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue,” he said in his first debate with Senator Barack Obama. (That attempt at humor went over like an iridium balloon, which is denser than a lead balloon.) As an article published in February on the Scientific American Web site showed, the money (actually closer to $5 million since 2003) is paying for an accurate population count of grizzlies living on the eight million acres of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
Says biologist Richard Mace of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, “We have a federal law called the Endangered Species Act, and [under this law] the federal government is supposed to help identify and conserve threatened species.” The first step to protect endangered grizzlies is to know how many there are. A reliable—and safe—way to do that is to set up barbed wire stations that grab fur as a grizzly wanders by. The researchers retrieve the fur and analyze the DNA to count individuals. Some bear haters, such as comic commentator Stephen Colbert, may question the need to save the grizzlies in the first place. But unless the Endangered Species Act is changed, federal law requires this expenditure. Strike one.
In the second debate McCain attacked Obama for voting for funding that included what the Arizona senator called “$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?” Well, yes. (Three Chicago-area Republican members of the House of Representatives thought so, too.)
It’s possible that the last time McCain attended a science talk the lecturer put transparencies on an overhead projector, state-of-the-art multimedia equipment half a century ago. But this projector, meant for the world-renowned Adler Planetarium, is somewhat different. It’s a star projection system, of course. The planetarium issued a statement after that debate: “To clarify, the Adler Planetarium requested federal support—which was not funded—to replace the projector in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the Western Hemisphere. The Adler’s Zeiss Mark VI projector—not an overhead projector—is the instrument that re-creates the night sky in a dome theater, the quintessential planetarium experience. The Adler’s projector is nearly 40 years old and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer.” I don’t know how many kids started a life-long interest in science at a sky show at a planetarium, but I bet we hear from some of you out there. Swing and a miss, strike two.
Then came the coup de graceless. On October 24 vice presidential candidate Governor Sarah Palin took on what looked through her designer eyeglasses like silly pork-barrel spending by the U.S.: “Some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense, and 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.” Never mind that fruit-fly research has brought us modern genetics and molecular biology. The particular earmark in question was some $211,000 to a laboratory in Montpelier, France, with long experience studying ways to protect olive trees from fruit flies. And the little pests are threatening California’s olive crop—with a retail value estimated in 2005 at $85 million. So this money might be looked at by anybody with business savvy as an investment. I kid you not. Oh, and strike three.
Science and technology are probably going to be the driving forces that lift us out of the economic hole we’re in. The Obama campaign had an entire science advisory team that included two Nobel laureates, Harold Varmus and Peter Agre. The McCain campaign did not have a dedicated science adviser. Future Republican presidential candidates: come to the clean energy–powered, low-wattage, high-lumen light. It beats cursing the darkness.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Flies and Projectors and Bears, Oh My".