Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Supporting Scientific Research

This report from NPR's Morning Edition contained, among other glorious tidbits, the latest freakout among some on the right - shrimp on a treadmill.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Who studies shrimp on a treadmill? Biologist Lou Burnnett. He learned about the senator's report when CNN called him.

Mr. LOU BURNNETT (Biologist): I was pretty irritated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the half-a-million dollars was actually for a lot of different research on this economically important seafood species. The treadmills were just a small part of it, a way to measure how shrimp respond to changes in water quality. Burnnett says the senator's report was misleading.

Mr. BURNNETT: It suggests that much money was spent on seeing how long a shrimp can run on a treadmill, which was totally out of context.
Then, of course, there was the toenail clippings.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her group has also criticized other government-funded studies, including a National Institutes of Health grant for measuring nicotine exposure in toenail clippings.

Ms. LAFFERTY: They used recovery money, money that was meant to more or less stimulate the economy - interesting use of money, mailing in toenail clippings.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The deputy director of the National Institutes of Health is Lawrence Tabak. He defended the use of recovery funds. And he says the toenail study has an important goal that its critics didn't mention: trying to assess people's risk of lung cancer.

Mr. LAWRENCE TABAK (Deputy Director, National Institutes of Health): So what's scientifically sound and indeed cost-effective - to collect biospecimens for cancer research - was twisted in what was intended to ridicule an important lifesaving research effort.
Nit-picking scientific studies is a time-honored tradition in our nation's Capitol. The late William Proxmire, D-WI, used to have his "Golden Fleece" awards given to most everything from the space program to agriculture subsidies, but he usually saved a few for basic research grants.

We can have a serious, thoughtful debate about whether or not, or how much, to fund basic research through public funds. Since public funds usually go to studies that have relevance for everything from local and regional economies (finding out how shrimp deal with environmental stressers is kind of important to the folks who make their living harvesting the little critters) to public health (one can do an assay of toenail clippings and gain valuable information on all sorts of things, not the least of them being the lingering effects of nicotine addiction and how that may impact the prospects of cancer development). Getting chided by Sarah Palin for allegedly doing something ridiculous should be considered a badge of honor; after all, at least the scientists involved in various studies actually finish what they started.

The reality is this scientific research is carried out for a marvelous reason - it's in the nation's interest to have this information. Since economic growth, sustainable development, public health, and other policy priorities are things about which we need to know, scientific studies of all varieties are an important part of doing things better, more efficiently and cost-effectively, and understanding the various impacts of a variety of environmental and human factors on the country. You want to argue that there is a principle involved here, be my guest. By and large, however, you will not find too many folks who understand (a) how science works, and (b) how politics works that would agree with you.

So, hooray for the study on the correlation between penis size and sexually transmitted disease. More information is always preferable.

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