“They’re doing what?!” Revisiting ridiculed research

Fruit flies in France. Bear DNA in Montana. Catfish genome mapping in Alabama. The way some politicians tell it, taxpayers are footing the bill for a lot of really stupid research. But before you take their word for it, why not read on and do your own research so you can make that call for yourself?

[Interested in this topic? At the bottom of this post you can find more resources on the intersection of politics, big business, and the public's perception of science.]

Try Nerdy is intended as a completely apolitical blog, but it turns out that politicians sometimes speak out on nerdy topics; the most well-known of these instances happen to involve members of the Republican party. I am not here to critique the political strategy of politicians putting down pet projects, but instead I hope to tell you what you need to know to be able to decide for yourself whether those projects represent government money well-spent, or not.

“You’ve heard about some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” (Emphasis mine)

So said Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on October 24, 2008, in a speech about running mate John McCain’s policies on children with disabilities:

Palin was most likely referring to research about the olive fruit fly, which has wiped out tons of olive trees across Europe and is now a serious threat to California’s olive trees, an industry worth $66 million per year in a state with many recent bankruptcy issues. The flies were probably introduced accidentally by some French import to the state, so in 2008 California Representative Mike Thompson (D) earmarked $200,000+ dollars to study the fly in France. The idea was to research ways to stop the olive fruit fly from destroying the olive tree economy in California, and to study the fly in a location that had many more years of experience with the pest: the place from which the flies most likely came in the first place.

“233 million for a bridge to nowhere. Outrageous… Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable… A million dollars for a Woodstock Museum—in a bill sponsored by Hillary Clinton. Predictable… Who has the guts to stand up to wasteful government spending? One man. John McCain.”(Emphasis mine)

Senator John McCain (R) made several statements similar to these in speeches during his 2008 presidential campaign. This quote in particular was taken from one of McCain’s 2008 campaign ads, an admittedly poor quality version of which is here:

(Although the figure for the bear research was probably more like $5 million.) McCain was taking a shot at the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, which is concerned with preserving the grizzly bear population. The project is based specifically in Northwest Montana, which is one out of six recovery zones for grizzlies, which are currently on the endangered species list.  One aspect of the project is to strategically place barbed wire in the Northwest Montana area to snag bear hairs that can be recovered later for DNA extraction. Sequencing this DNA can provide information about how many bears are in which parts of the region and what the male-to-female ratio is – important information for maintaining the grizzly bear species, which may or may not be McCain’s top priority.

“This year, they sprinkled in $2.5 million for potato pest management and research, $1.4 million to study mosquito trapping in Florida, and $800,000 for catfish genome mapping in Alabama. Taxpayers have been on the hook for this fishy earmark since 2001, for a total of $3.4 million.”(Emphasis mine)

Although not a politician, CBS News’ congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes had some tough words for government funding of several research projects in a piece she wrote last year: “Earmarks: Who Brought Home the Bacon?” Although the “potato pest management” is probably a story similar to the olive fruit fly problem and the “mosquito trapping in Florida” is most likely an attempt to curb mosquito-borne illnesses, it’s not immediately obvious what mapping the catfish genome would be good for (in Alabama or elsewhere). As it turns out, Alabama is the second biggest producer of fish by farming in the U.S., and catfish pull in $100 million to Alabama farmers and $125 million to Alabama processors annually. The earmarked project she mentions would map genes in the catfish genome that contribute to disease susceptibility, growth rate, and intelligence — then, hybrid fish could be bred to be healthier, grow faster, and be dumber (smart fish are harder to catch). The monetary benefits as a result of this project would potentially be substantial for Alabama fish farmers, who in the U.S. are considered part of the “heart of our country,” (as are olive tree farmers and potato farmers). Not to mention, the hybrid fish model could possibly be adapted to other areas of fish farming.

These brief stories only scratch the surface of how the interactions between politics and science can play out on the public stage. If you found this article at all enlightening, I suggest you check out these books that delve much deeper into these topics — do your research!
“Does the Bush administration ignore or deny mainstream research to please its conservative base? Have business groups and certain religious lobbies helped it do so? Does Bush-era treatment of scientists differ from that of Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Reagan? Has a Republican Congress passed laws designed to disable clean air and water efforts, and has it dismantled safeguards, such as the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, meant to give legislators unbiased advice? Mooney’s passionate, thoroughly researched volume answers these questions with an urgent “yes.”"


“For those who think of science as an honest and objective broker in policy making, this volume paints a very different picture, and it’s not pretty. But it’s the ugly side of the regulatory process, where scientific research is often distorted to serve questionable ends, that badly needs greater exposure. This book is an eye-opener that not only documents the problems, but also takes great pains to make sensible proposals for reform that merit serious consideration.”



“Drawing together a host of little-known but dramatic cases, this landmark book documents more comprehensively than any previous study, what has been suspected for years: how extensively scientific data are misused and abused in regulatory and tort law. Society depends on science to guide public policy on health and safety, but as McGarity and Wagner show, many interest groups do all they can to influence –and undermine– independent and honest research. Bending Science shows just how far science has been corrupted, and offers a road to reform.”


“We live in an age of unprecedented disinformation, misinformation, and outright lying by those in power. This important book shows who profits by misleading the public-and who ultimately pays with their health.”



“For the past fifty years, science and technology supported with billions of dollars from the U.S. government have advanced at a rate that would once have seemed miraculous, while society’s problems have grown more intractable, complex, and diverse. Yet scientists and politicians alike continue to prescribe more science and more technology to cure such afflictions as global climate change, natural resource depletion, overpopulation…. Daniel Sarewitz scrutinizes the fundamental myths that have guided the formulation of science policy for half a century…but often fail to advance the interests of society as a whole.”


“University science is now entangled with entrepreneurship, and researchers with a commercial interest are caught in an ethical quandary. Science in the Private Interest investigates the trends and effects of modern, commercialized academic science.”
Lu J, Peatman E, Yang Q, Wang S, Hu Z, Reecy J, Kucuktas H, & Liu Z (2011). The catfish genome database cBARBEL: an informatic platform for genome biology of ictalurid catfish. Nucleic acids research, 39 (Database issue) PMID: 20935046

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3 Responses to “They’re doing what?!” Revisiting ridiculed research

  1. Samantha says:

    It always amazes me how ignorant some people can be. If you don’t understand it, that doesn’t make it useless. (This is probably also why such people are not scientists.)

  2. Pingback: Science as featured on Saturday Night Live! | Try Nerdy

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