In presidential debates and stump speeches, John McCain and Sarah Palin attacked several specific worthwhile science projects and mocked federal support for them as pork-barrel spending. Why did they do this? Was it due to ignorance of the actual purpose of the projects? Or did they know, but put pressing their attack on congressional earmarks ahead of good judgment or honest communication?
Lawrence M. Krauss, who directs the Origins Initiative (exploring the beginnings of the universe, as well as human origins, cognition and culture) at Arizona State University, wrote in the Los Angeles Times (read the full opinion column here):
McCain’s science earmark error
Millions to study grizzly bear DNA is ‘a waste of money,’ McCain says. Wrong.
By Lawrence M. Krauss
October 28, 2008
[T]he McCain campaign continues to make hay over supposedly wasteful federal earmarks in the funding of science.
In the first presidential debate, and on the campaign stump, John McCain has cited a $3-million earmark allocated to study the DNA of bears in Montana. “I don’t know if it was a paternity issue or criminal,” he quipped, “but it was a waste of money.”
Wrong on both counts. The actual amount was more: $4.8 million, and the research was mandated by the Federal Endangered Species Act, on the recommendation of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks service as essential to preserving a threatened species, the grizzly bear.
The DNA study allowed researchers to pinpoint bear numbers and locations and to document how their population is changing, all essential data if the bears are to be protected from extinction. That may not be the highest item on a presidential agenda, but to claim that it is a waste of money is outrageous. Protecting grizzly bears may be expensive, but many would argue that preserving such a U.S. treasure is priceless.
During the second and third debates, McCain railed against another supposed example of government waste: A request from Barack Obama for “$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago.”
The “overhead projector” in question is in fact a 40-year-old Zeiss optical projector that needs to be replaced at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The one-ton, 10-feet-long instrument is the central component of the Adler, the first planetarium ever built in the Western Hemisphere. It projects the night sky on the dome of the Sky Theater at the planetarium, which has hosted more than 35 million people since it opened, including more than 400,000 schoolchildren every year. In fact, the request—made by Obama along with others in the Illinois congressional delegation, including three Republicans—wasn’t granted.
If it had been, it wouldn’t have been a waste of government money. The National Academy of Sciences has targeted science education as a key goal in preserving the economic competitiveness of our nation. Similar “overhead projectors” in Los Angeles and New York have recently been replaced with the help of federal funds. McCain’s gleeful attack sends this message: Encouraging science literacy is not worthy of government support.
Finally, last week, Sarah Palin gave her first policy speech, urging the federal government to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Along the way, she too attacked science earmarks by claiming that the shortfall needed to fully fund the act was less money than was allocated to projects that have “little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France.”
Fruit flies can be made to seem like a silly thing to spend money on. But Palin was referring to research at a lab in France supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The subject is the olive fruit fly, which threatens the California olive industry. The U.S. is working with France because that nation has dealt with an olive fruit fly infestation for decades, far longer than California.
Maybe Palin also should have been told that a University of North Carolina fruit fly study last year demonstrated that a protein called neurexin is required for nerve-cell connections to form and function correctly. That discovery may lead to advances in understanding, among other things, autism, one of the childhood disorders that has been stressed by the McCain-Palin campaign.
It is easy to attack what you don’t understand. But politicians would be wiser to attempt to better appreciate how science affects the issues central to our political priorities before rushing to use scientific research and education as a scapegoat in their campaigns.
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times