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The McCain/Palin War on Fruit Flies - Why We Can't Afford Continued Ignorance in the White House

12/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Jim Schumacher and Debbie Bookchin

There has been a lot of commentary--mostly negative--about the speech Sarah Palin gave Friday, October 24, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the one in which she decried federal funds being wasted on "fruit fly research in Paris" when they could be used to assist people with disabilities. At the risk of piling on, we'd like to add our own perspective to the discussion from the viewpoint of two science writers, since even an Obama victory today almost certainly does not mark the end of Sarah Palin's political career as a Republican "star." Therefore her views on science are relevant today and beyond.

As others have observed, one obvious problem with the Palin argument is that the humble drosphilia has played a key role in genetic research for decades. Our understanding of how genes work together, including how genetic defects or chromosome damage can lead to disease, would be decades behind our present level of knowledge if we did not fund fruit fly and other similar "silly" DNA research projects. By advocating funding cuts for DNA research, Palin would hamper, if not cripple, the very type of research that has great potential significantly ameliorate some of these genetic disabilities that afflict children with special needs. In this respect, she demonstrates little understanding of the actual enterprise of science - how basic research in one field supports further advances in other, sometimes seemingly unrelated fields.

To fully appreciate the sad irony and irrationality of the Palin position, let's roll back the clock to another Presidential election, 1952. Let us imagine Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate for vice-president, appearing in the same town as Palin, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the late fall. Polio is a hot topic on the campaign trail. The summer of 1952 has seen the worst polio epidemic ever in U.S. history; fifty-eight thousand new cases of polio were diagnosed, one for every three thousand U.S. citizens. Let's further imagine that one of Nixon's own daughters contracted the disease that summer and although she was lucky enough to recover, Nixon, based on his personal experience, is now promising to be a forceful advocate for polio victims as vice-president: more iron lungs, more hospital beds, more therapy and rehabilitation. But funding is tight, he says, and the only way to get the money needed to help polio victims in tough times is to stop wasteful funding of research projects that have no obvious public benefits--projects such as investigating how to grow monkey kidney cells in test tubes, a research project recently undertaken by some eggheads up at Harvard!

Unbeknownst to Nixon, a young, hitherto unknown University of Pittsburgh scientist, Jonas Salk, has just completed the first-ever successful test of a polio vaccine in Pittsburgh during the summer of 1952, the first real breakthrough in the fight against the disease that has terrorized America every summer for almost 40 years. The reason for Salk's breakthrough: He was the first, and for many years, the only polio researcher to appreciate the significance of the Harvard monkey kidney cell research, which was largely ignored by most of the scientific community. By using monkey kidney cell tissue cultures to grow the poliovirus, Salk solved the problem that had stalled vaccine research for the better part of two decades: How to quickly and safely grow enough poliovirus to make and test a vaccine on a mass scale. In two years, Salk's "miracle" vaccine would be tested on almost half-a-million children; by 1955 it was licensed for mass use. Within a decade, polio was no longer a serious public health threat in the United States and Salk's vaccine paved the way to a "golden-age" of vaccine development in the US.

What the Salk story shows--and what seems to be unappreciated by the McCain/Palin brain(dead)trust--is that as often as not there is no straight line between a particular area of research and a great discovery that may have "everything to do with the public good." Some of the best science is based as much on creativity, serendipity and the free exchange of ideas as it is on rigor, bench work and discipline. That is why the wisest course for politicians is to set broad public policy goals and adequately fund them, not try to micromanage the research community, as Palin suggests.

This was something that the real Richard Nixon understood when he dramatically increased funding and greatly expanded the National Institutes of Health as part of his "War Against Cancer." It is no accident that today, almost 40 years later, the US continues to be a world leader in cancer research. In fact, for most of the second half of the last century, the United States was an acknowledged leader in technological breakthroughs in almost every scientific field--from medicine to astrophysics--helped in large part by generous federal support of scientific research of every sort. Those decades of federal funding for science also helped fuel the country's post-war prosperity, not only through direct creation of research jobs, but through the multiplier effect when research led to the creation of whole new industries (think biotech companies and computers, as two obvious examples).

Of course, the last eight years have seriously damaged US scientific leadership. We have suffered through an administration that, in the name of Homeland Security, has actively turned off the flow of would-be researchers and scientists that once crowded our universities and research facilities, one that has actively tried to suppress scientific research, such as that on global warming, that doesn't support its political aims. Add the Bush ban on stem cell research, which drove this promising research field essentially out of the country, and it is easy to understand why the U.S. is in danger of losing its leadership status when it comes to centers of excellence for scientific research.

Palin also disingenuously sets up a straw man with her argument about funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at the expensive of fruit fly research. By suggesting that frivolous research projects, as defined by her, are the reason we cannot fully fund programs to aid the disabled, she, like McCain, refuses to confront the obvious truth that the Bush war, tax cuts to the wealthy, and a bloated giveaway to the pharmaceutical companies in the Medicare expansion act, to name a few, are the real reasons that all of the nation's social service programs--not just IDEA--are disgracefully neglected. The truth is that there is no excuse for not funding social programs and good science.

But the real harm that would result from the continuation of Bush-style scientific meddling and underfunding during a McCain/Palin administration (or in a Palin administration in 2012 or later) would be far more than just the continued loss of American scientific preeminence. It would be the lost opportunity for a planet that has little opportunity left. We face enormous challenges that we must solve in a perilously short time frame: Arresting global warming, the end of petro-based energy, supporting a growing a global population in a sustainable and equitable way, a shortage of potable water, fighting AIDS and other new diseases, and perhaps new challenges that we have not yet foreseen. We will require breakthroughs similar to the ones that allowed us to end polio and put a man on the moon within a single decade if we are to succeed. We desperately need political leadership in the White House that understands the importance of scientific research to confront the challenges we face as a nation and a planet--not an anti-Enlightenment, anti-science president.

As the planet's richest nation, with the world's top pool of scientists, we should be committing far more, not less, federal funding to free and unfettered basic scientific research that is directed towards confronting the array of crises that confront us globally. It is not only morally imperative, it is critical if we hope to have a livable world to pass onto our children and grandchildren. We cannot afford another eight years of willful inaction and attempts to influence science to meet narrow ideological aims that would be part and parcel of any Palin administration. We simply do not have the time.