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Friday, October 24, 2008
Governor Palin Swats At Fruit Fly Research

Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin gave a policy speech on Friday about special education. Among other things, Gov. Palin advocated for full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Gov. Palin's own 6-month-old son has Down Syndrome, so she clearly has a personal stake in ensuring that all children with special needs get the educational support they need.

In her speech, Gov. Palin claimed that the amount of money that the United States Congress spends on earmarks is enough to fully fund IDEA. She went on to give an example of one of the "pet projects" that she would like to see eliminated.

"You've heard about some of these pet projects that really don't make a whole lot of sense. 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."

Although the reference was somewhat vague, Gov. Palin was almost certainly referring to a $748,000 earmark obtained by California Rep. Mike Thompson for olive fruit fly research. This earmark was one of many that was criticized earlier this year by the fiscal watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste in their annual "Congressional Pig Book" report.

As you might expect, Rep. Thompson vigourously defended his request for that earmark:

"The Olive Fruit Fly has infested thousands of California olive groves and is the single largest threat to the U.S. olive and olive oil industries," he said. "I secured $748,000 for olive fruit fly research and irradiation in the (fiscal year 2008) appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA will use some of that funding for their research facility in France. This USDA research facility is located in France because Mediterranean countries like France have dealt with the Olive Fruit Fly for decades, while California has only been exposed since the late 1990s. This is not uncommon; the USDA has several international research facilities throughout the world, including Australia, China and Argentina."

It turns out that this fruit fly research has the potential to positively impact not only the economic well-being of a significant number of Californians but also the overall health of everyday Americans.

Palin's criticism of the use of federal funding for scientific research that actually does have to do with the public good is certainly troubling. But it rings especially hollow given that this year she submitted to Congress an earmark request list including $2,000,000 to research the productivity of the Bering Sea Crab and $3,200,000 to study the genetics of Harbor Seals and Stellar Sea Lions. These are both undoubtedly worthy research projects, but they are precisely the same kind of project that Palin scoffed at in her speech.

Perhaps Gov. Palin simply did not know about the particular goal of the fruit fly research she criticized in her speech?

Or maybe she thought it was not important enough to require federal support?

Either way, it's this kind of dismissive attitude toward useful scientific research that is troubling for people like me who are concerned about a decline in federal funding for scientific research. It should also also troubling to anyone who might benefit from the findings of such research.

For instance, just last year researchers from University of North Carolina showed that a protein called neurexin is required for the formation and correct functioning of nerve cell connections. Because neurexins have been identified as a genetic risk factor for autism, the discovery may lead to advances in understanding autism spectrum disorders.

How was the discovery of the function of neurexin made?

By studying the nervous systems of fruit flies.

I kid you not.

Unfortunately, although she says she will fight for more funding to help all children with disabilities, Gov. Palin's apparent lack of respect for the value of basic scientific research could end up being a barrier to providing these children the assistance they need.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

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