Palin vs. the flies

With just over a week to go until Americans choose their next President, the McCain/Palin campaign has linkurl:again;http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=mccains-beef-with-bears lashed out at what they've called wasteful "earmark" spending on "pet projects" in the form of scientific research. This time Alaska Governor and Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin leveled the charge, and she's picked a new target: fruit fly research. "Sometimes these dollars, they go to projects having lit

Oct 27, 2008
Bob Grant
With just over a week to go until Americans choose their next President, the McCain/Palin campaign has linkurl:again;http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=mccains-beef-with-bears lashed out at what they've called wasteful "earmark" spending on "pet projects" in the form of scientific research. This time Alaska Governor and Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin leveled the charge, and she's picked a new target: fruit fly research. "Sometimes these dollars, they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good," Palin said during a policy speech focused on special needs children she delivered in North Carolina on Friday (Oct. 24), "things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." Mainstream linkurl:press outlets;http://in.truveo.com/Countdown-Palin-Doing-More-Harm-Than-Good/id/2232266654 and linkurl:bloggers;http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-seitzman/the-lyin-the-witch-and-th_b_137028.html have been pointing to the absurdity of Palin's comment vis-a-vis the role of fruit fly research in understanding human biology (and particularly disorders affecting special needs children). While her reference was vague, the Alaska Governor may have been talking about research focused on the genus linkurl:__Bactrocera__,;http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/?p=7786 an agricultural pest, and not more broadly to a century of study on the classic model organism, __Drosophila melanogaster__. Recently, California Representative Mike Thompson (D) linkurl:secured;http://www.napavalleyregister.com/articles/2008/04/09/news/local/doc47fc6ca1ad0ee555305173.txt a $211,000 earmark for a USDA research in France that studies control of the olive fruit fly, linkurl:__Bactrocera oleae__,;http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/fruit/tropical/olive_fruit_fly.htm which has plagued Mediterranean olive groves for decades and more recently has infected California's. It appears that the money likely went to a linkurl:USDA biological control lab;http://www.ars-ebcl.org/ near Montpellier, France, more than 400 miles south of Paris, with other USDA funds going to California-based collaborators studying how to control the pest on this side of the Atlantic. "[Palin's comment] does kind of bother me," University of California, Davis entomologist linkurl:Frank Zalom,;http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/faculty/facpage.cfm?id=zalom told __The Scientist__. "Clearly there's no understanding about the problem of the pest or the methods being studied to control them." Zalom, who is not funded by the USDA, said that in 2003 he became one of the first US entomologists to study the olive fruit fly, which was first detected in California olive groves in 1999. linkurl:Kent Daane,;http://daane.uckac.edu/ a University of California, Berkeley, entomologist, also studies __Bactrocera oleae__ and said he probably receives funding - indirectly from a subgrant through the California Department of Food and Agriculture - from the USDA earmark secured by Thompson. Daane said that his research focuses on identifying effective natural parasites of the olive fruit fly, which is likely native to Africa, and studying their potential to control California populations of the pest. "I doubt [Palin] has any idea what the funds were being used for," Daane told __The Scientist__. "Almost any politician would not understand the complexity of any project that they just gloss over in a one-line joke like that." "This is very important for the olive growers in California," Daane continued. "[The olive fruit fly] has dramatically increased their control costs and has put some farmers out of business, I'm sure." But what if Palin was in fact referring to __Drosophila__ research in her seemingly off-the-cuff comment? linkurl:Sean Carroll,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/55040/ a University of Wisconsin, Madison molecular biologist who has studied Drosophila's genes and basic physiological processes (many of which are strikingly similar to those in human beings) for decades, told __The Scientist__ that Palin's jab is "terrifying, but not surprising." "I think it was revealingly ignorant," Carroll said. "It's astounding that someone who wants to be a public advocate for research into the causes and treatment of childhood diseases would not familiarize herself with the scientific foundation necessary to do that." Another __Drosophila__ researcher, linkurl:Scott Hawley;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/54228/ of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, MO, said he was surprised at Palin's comments but added that she's not the first politician to display a failure to understand the importance of basic research in furthering biological knowledge and the public good. "I think that it's very hard to not notice the enormous value that fruit flies have played in the development of neurogenetics and neurobiology," Hawley told __The Scientist__. "[Palin's] comments suggest that she might not understand the value of model systems, such as __Drosophila__ and __C. elegans__." linkurl:Stacie Propst,;http://www.aimbe.org/assets/722_staciepropstbio.pdf vice president of policy and outreach at science advocacy group Research!America, said that Palin's comments point to a need for scientists to become more intimately involved in the political process. "Candidates for Congress and President should have good science advice," Propst told __The Scientist__. "Obviously there's a disconnect there. I think [Palin's comment] goes to show that we need better representation by the scientific community inside the policy arena."